ST. PAUL -- It's been called "gun week" at the Minnesota State Capitol, as lawmakers consider a batch of eight bills related to who can legally buy guns and what types they should be allowed to purchase.
A hearing by the House Public Safety committee Tuesday drew hundreds of citizens on both sides of the gun control issue, and even two overflow viewing rooms weren't enough to accommodate those who wanted to watch the event.
The first bill the panel took up would subject all private sales of firearms to a background check, by requiring the transfer of such weapons be processed through a licensed gun dealer.
Many police chiefs showed up to testify in favor of the bill known as House File 237, authored by Rep. Michael Paymar of St. Paul. It would, among other things, make it harder for those who are ineligible to buy firearms from getting them at gun shows.
"You've all heard the term, 'closing the gun show loophole.' Well, we'd submit to you that's not a loophole, but in fact a gaping hole," Dennis Flaherty, of the Minnesota Peace and Police Officers Association, told lawmakers.
"We are not doing enough to protect the citizens of our state from gun violence. We're not doing enough to prevent people who, for a host of reasons, simply should not possess a handgun."
Gun control opponents questioned Flaherty's assertion, saying the number of private gun transactions are a small fraction of total firearms sales in the United States and Minnesota.
"Private sales are the exception and not the rule," Chris Rager of the National Rifle Association told the committee.
"Firearm ownership here in the United States is at an all-time high, and violent crime is at an all-time low."
Rep. Tony Cornish, a Republican from Good Thunder, said he believes the rank and file police officers in Minnesota are opposed to any further restrictions on the purchase of firearms.
"I will challenge the chiefs to say they do not represent front line officers, and the vast majority," he said. "They represent city councils, and they represent mayors."
Cornish, who favors arming school teachers as a defense against mass shootings, took a verbal shot at the police officers and sheriffs deputies who served as a backdrop at President Obama's gun control speech in Minneapolis on Monday.
"It was sad personally for me to see all those officers lined up in bleachers behind President Obama, and give credence to gun control laws that won't do any good."
The committee also heard from Sami Rahamim, the son of the owner of Accent Signage, Reuven Rahamim, who was among six murdered at a work place shooting in Minneapolis in September.
"I sent a text message to my dad that day telling him that I'd heard there had been a shooting in Bryn Mawr that day, and to stay away and be careful," Rahamim recalled.
"Of course, what I did not know at that time was this text to my dad would go unanswered, because shortly before then he'd been shot twice in the head at the company he'd built."
The experience has transformed the 18-year-old St. Louis Park man into a gun control advocate. He took part in President Obama's gun violence round table in Minneapolis Monday, and will attend the State of the Union address February 12th as a guest of 5th District Congressman Keith Ellison.
"I'm not worried about engaging with those people or changing their minds," Rahamim told KARE after the hearing, referring to the NRA members who filled the corridors of the State Office Building on Tuesday.
"I'm focused on the legislators and convincing them that this legislation is necessary to provide adequate public safety."
Many of the gun control opponents wore tee shirts and buttons identifying themselves as members of the Minnesota Gun Owner Civil Rights Alliance. Among them was David Gross, a private attorney who said the crowds at the hearing were a natural response to the changes being proposed.
"The legislators, they have to violate our civil rights, our right to keep and bear arms, our right to due process," Gross told KARE.
"They want to make us into second class citizens and we're here exercising our first amendment constitutional rights, speaking out against it."
Another aspect of the bill would make it tougher for those who've been hospitalized for a mental illness to buy firearms, even if they've never been ordered by a court to receive such treatment.
A separate piece of legislation, known as House File 240, would allow local sheriffs to require a statement of mental health fitness from some gun permit applicants, if they've demonstrated signs of mental illness in previous encounters with police or the courts.
Rep. Dan Schoen, a Cottage Grove Democrat and active police officer, said there are many potential applicants who have never been civilly committed to treatment by the courts and yet still cause concern for police.
Jeffrey Beahen, the police chief of Rogers, told lawmakers that chiefs once had the discretion to deny permits based on past dealing with individuals. That changed in 2003 with the passage of Minnesota's Carry Conceal law.
"What about that individual in our city where we've had 60 calls in the last 12 months, where they're hearing voices through walls and they've put tin foil on their windows?" Chief Beahen asked, describing a citizen who apparently has a case of untreated schizophrenia.
"They're convinced God is coming to them, telling them to buy a firearm, and to do things, yet they've never been committed to an institution. I now must issue that person a permit."
But Rep. Jim Newberger, a Republican from Becker, objected to Schoen's bill.
Newberger said he's learned, in decades of experience as a paramedic working in north Minneapolis, that disruptive people are often sent to psychiatric wards on temporary holds because police officers don't have time to deal with them.
"According to the criteria of this bill, if you're having a family stress situation, if you're having an alcohol situation, if you're having suicidal ideations, you get put on a transport hold, you get brought to a hospital, now all of a sudden you can't own a gun?"
The committee took no votes on the two bills, but laid them over for more debate later in the session. The same will go for the other six bills being heard this week.
The two most controversial measures, one banning military style semi-automatic assault rifles and one limiting the size of ammunition magazines, will be heard Wednesday morning.
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