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Local lawmakers discuss gun legislation

BEMIDJI – The state Legislature is split on how to address gun control, and it appears local legislators are as well.

A bill garnering more than 70 co-sponsors from both parties was introduced in the Minnesota House on Wednesday that would improve the data used for background checks and create mandatory minimum sentences for those previously convicted of a crime of violence caught with firearms, among other measures.

Bemidji DFL Rep. John Persell is one of those sponsors.

“It may not be the perfect bill for everybody, but it’s the bill that’s going to make Minnesota safer,” Persell, the House majority whip, told the Pioneer Thursday. “And it’s one that we believe we can get passed in the House and Senate and the governor will sign it.”

Gov. Mark Dayton said he was disappointed universal background checks were not included in the bill.

“He is willing to take a look at the new proposed legislation, but has not yet had the opportunity to do so,” Katharine Tinucci, Dayton’s press secretary, wrote in an email to the Pioneer.

Persell said he’s in favor of other provisions not addressed in the bill, including closing the so-called “gun show loophole,” in which people buying firearms from private sellers don’t go through a background check.

“We can’t pass it off the House floor, arguably, what’s the point of having it in the bill?” Persell said. “At this time, we’re looking for something that we can do to be constructive and helpful to our law enforcement agencies.”

The bill, authored by Brooklyn Center DFLer Rep. Debra Hilstrom and backed by the National Rifle Association, doesn’t contain background checks on almost all gun purchases in the state. That provision is a cornerstone of a bill previously introduced by DFL Rep. Michael Paymar, chairman of the House public safety committee.

It also doesn’t include controversial proposals to ban assault weapons, which also didn’t end up in the Paymar bill.

Paymar, who resides in St. Paul, previously said rural legislators from his party were “struggling” with gun control issues. Persell, a hunter, said he appreciates his suburban and metro colleagues’ differing experiences with guns.

“There’s a different sense about firearms (in the Twin Cities),” Persell said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, is taking a “wait and see” approach to whether he will support the legislation. Saxhaug, who said he’s in favor of comprehensive background checks on a federal level, said he’d rather the Legislature focus on budget issues.

“I’m not really interested in putting a lot of political capital into guns and same-sex marriage,” Saxhaug told the Pioneer Thursday. “Not that I don’t believe or wouldn’t support some of that stuff, but you’ve only got so many things you can do.”

A Senate version of the bill has yet to be introduced, but Saxhaug said he doesn’t intend to be a sponsor.

Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp said Thursday that he and the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association support Hilstrom’s bill.

“What we’re doing is trying to hold the people who are committing the crime or behaving badly accountable for their behavior,” Hodapp said.

Hodapp explained that when someone applies for a permit to purchase or permit to carry a handgun in Beltrami County, the sheriff’s office conducts a background check on the applicant. But when a licensed dealer sells a firearm, they run the purchaser’s information through a federal background check called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.

He said the bill improves the data used to do those background checks.

“It sets time limits for getting the data into the system,” Hodapp said. “And really that’s what we’re more about is that … the data and the information contained in the NICS system right now isn’t complete.”

Hodapp added that applying background checks to person-to-person sales would be hard, if not impossible to enforce.

“And I don’t agree with passing laws that are unenforceable,” he said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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