By Jim Ragsdale and Rachel E. Stassen-Berger
The Minnesota House will not vote on expanding gun background checks to private sales or on any other gun legislation this year, House Speaker Paul Thissen said Wednesday.
Coping with a deeply divided DFL caucus, Thissen told the Star Tribune that despite months of work, legislators and advocates remain too polarized to allow any compromise.
"Neither side has been willing to come to an agreement," said Thissen, a Minneapolis DFLer. "Because of the intensity on both sides of the issue, even some common-sense solutions can't be agreed upon right now."
His decision left those who had been working for passage steaming.
"I'm very disappointed, very angry," said Rep. Michael Paymar, the committee chairman who shepherded the gun measures through tough, emotional hearings. The St. Paul DFLer said Thissen had pledged to him that "he wanted to do something about gun violence. He committed to me we would have a vote, we would have a debate on the floor."
Senate leaders have said repeatedly that they would wait to see what the House did before taking their own floor vote. On Wednesday night, Sen. Ron Latz, a St. Louis Park DFLer and main sponsor of the Senate gun bill, still harbored hope that a public outcry could force a House reversal.
"I'm extremely disappointed that the House appears to be opting out of what is clearly a major public safety and public health issue in our state," Latz said. "I think that inaction ... is more politically dangerous than making common-sense steps forward."
A bow to reality?
Second Amendment supporters said Thissen is just bowing to legislative reality: There would never be the votes to pass any measure that touches on gun rights.
A strong coalition of largely rural House DFLers and all House Republicans were prepared to join forces to turn back any measure they saw as restricting gun rights.
"I expected it," said Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, an ardent supporter of gun rights who goes by the moniker "the Gun Guy."
With just three weeks left in the legislative session, Thissen's decision likely kills an effort launched after the Connecticut school shootings in December to pass measures to curb gun violence in the state. The House and Senate had focused on expanding background checks on handguns and semiautomatic, military-style assault weapons to some private purchases.
Those proposals brought hundreds of Minnesotans to the Capitol, from crime victims pleading for greater gun controls to gun owners defending their constitutional right to bear arms.
Gun control proponents had popular sentiment on their side, with poll after poll showing strong support for universal background checks. But opposition from the National Rifle Association and gun rights supporters at the Legislature was fierce and unyielding. Thissen tried once to forge a compromise, centered on limited background checks on private sales only at gun shows, but even that bill foundered in the House.
"There's more than 68 votes to kill the bill, any bill, any amendment that would reduce the Second Amendment rights or cloud them," Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said shortly before Thissen decided to shelve the issue. Dill was part of a bipartisan coalition opposed to expanded checks. Sixty-eight "no" votes is the minimum needed to block a bill in the House.
Citing popular support
Heather Martens, head of Protect Minnesota, which led the fight for universal background checks, said legislators are ignoring public opinion on the issue.
"What [Thissen's decision] means is we are going to need to work hard on it and make sure that all of the Legislature is aware of how overwhelming the support is for improving our background checks and protecting our right to be safe in our communities," Martens said.
A Star Tribune poll this year found that more than 70 percent of Minnesotans -- including a majority of gun owners -- favored background checks.
Protect Minnesota joined the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which represents the state's officers, in working to expand background checks, while the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance worked against the measure. Protect Minnesota began running a radio ad this week urging legislators to act, while the NRA has been encouraging its members to contact House members to sink the limited background checks bill.
Thissen said he hasn't given up entirely. "We just need more time to work out something that's going to work to prevent gun violence," he said. "People come at this issue very different perspectives. I still believe there could be a reasonable common-sense middle ground, but we're not going to get there this year."
(c)2013 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)