The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 9, 2013

Our View: An opening for gun compromise

The Free Press

— In what should have been a breakthrough in the logjam surrounding Minnesota gun legislation instead seems to further entrench the positions of gun-control advocates.

A bipartisan group of more than 70 DFL and GOP legislators from the Minnesota House offered a bill last week that would increase penalties for felons convicted of possessing firearms and make it a felony for individuals who knowingly purchase a gun for an ineligible person. The bill would also step up law enforcement collection and sharing of background check data.

However it did not contain a provision for universal background checks, which many gun control advocates insist upon. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Latz reportedly said any bill without universal background checks “is a major failing for all victims of gun violence.”

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said the bill offered was an attempt to “bring people together in Minnesota to do what we can to improve the background system that we currently have but also hold felons responsible for crimes they commit.”

However, Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, has indicated he has no desire to have the bill heard by the House public safety committee, which he chairs. And House Speaker Paul Thissen told Minnesota Public Radio News that while he personally would like to see something done around universal background checks, there is no unified caucus position on the issue.

The bipartisan bill would prohibit felons from possessing ammunition, create mandatory minimum prison sentences for violent felons convicted of possessing firearms on a second offense and make it a felony for individuals to file false reports of lost or stolen firearms.

It also streamlines the sharing of criminal data between the state and the federal government. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said the bill includes important “incremental change” in state gun laws.

But the touchstone for both sides is the definition of universal background checks that some proponents believe should be required for all gun purchases and tracked accordingly. The fear of some gun owners is this would create a federal gun registry which, in fact, Vice President Joe Biden favors.

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a key negotiator on federal gun legislation, was offering a compromise, too. He said any provision that required gun owners to keep records was unworkable. Instead, he wanted legislation that would give sellers “the right and the responsibility to do the right thing” and run a background check.

Without question, there are flaws in Minnesota’s background checks. It’s still difficult to access criminal records of people who are not permitted to own a weapon or who lie on their applications. And while the state already restricts gun ownership for drug offenders, fugitives, domestic abusers, felons, illegal immigrants, dishonorable discharges, stalkers and several categories of mentally ill, it’s hard for gun dealers to always get accurate information.

The compromise bill addresses improvements in the state’s background checks and, with discussion, it may even be improved upon. And Coburn’s offering is worth putting on the table here in Minnesota.

But any take-it-or-leave-it stand on Minnesota’s gun legislation is not beneficial. The opening provided by gun owner groups to compromise should be embraced and work should begin on clarifying the language acceptable for exemptions and correcting flaws on existing legislation.