Senate takes up universal background checks for gun buyers

2:33 AM, Feb 22, 2013   |    comments
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Overflow room for gun bill hearing

ST. PAUL, Minn.  -- The Minnesota gun control debated moved to the Senate Thursday, when a committee took testimony on a bill that would extend background checks to private gun sales if it became law.

"It is merely an opportunity for us to try to make sure that individuals who should not have guns will not have them," Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, the Minnesota Democrat who is the chief author of the measure, known as Senate File 458.

He said he believed the universal background checks will close loopholes, while still providing sportsmen and hunters such as his own father the freedom to continue to use their legal firearms.

The measure would implement a $25 permit fee to defray the government's cost of processing the background checks, which would be conducted through federally licensed dealers.

Hamline University Law School professor Howard Vogel, a constitutional scholar, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the legislature still has the power to regulate guns within the constraints of recent Supreme Court rulings, as long as they're reasonable and uniformly applied.

"What's clear is that this legislature has room for choice," Vogel remarked. "And it can include a lot of things, and today we're talking about background checks."

Opponents contended, however, that creating administrative barriers to gun transactions creates a de facto infringement on the Second Amendment's guarantee of a right to bear arms.

"We're not going to take your guns away, they say," Andrew Rothman of the Gun Owner Civil Rights Alliance testified.

"Not all at once. Instead the real intent, real the effect of these bills is to harass, and tax, and discourage the exercise of this constitutional right."

Another critic of the legislation, Kevin Vick, a licensed gun dealer and firearms instructor from Lakeville, said the government's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, was ineffective in preventing several high profile mass killings.

"NICS background checks did not prevent two mass murderers from legally obtaining handguns used in the Gabrielle Giffords mall shooting in Tucson and the Virginia Tech school shooting," Vick said.

"Remember Arizona is ranked number one in mental health record compliance, yet both sold handguns legally to mass murderers."

Heather Martins, the ardent gun control advocate who heads Protect Minnesota, said most Americans when polled on the issue support closing loopholes in background checks.

She said she had the opportunity to buy firearms directly from citizen at gun show in Anoka County two years ago.

"All I had to do was walk past the federally licensed dealers to the back of the armory, and I could buy an assault weapon for cash with no background check."

Earlier in the week Sen. Ron Latz, the St. Louis Park Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said the Senate would not take up the proposed ban on military-style assault rifles this session.

That had no noticeable effect, however, on turnout. Hundreds of citizens, most of them members of the NRA, converged on the State Capitol and stood in line for hours for a chance to get one of 80 tickets for the first hearing Thursday.

The others could watch the testimony on closed circuit television in one of two overflow viewing areas.

Among the spectators was Corey Birkemeyer of Plymouth, who was making his first ever visit to the State Capitol. He was wearing a holstered Glock 23 pistol, which is allowed for those permit holders who give prior notice to the MN Dept. of Public Safety.

"I don't ever anticipate having to use my gun for self-defense," Birkemeyer told KARE.

"But if I have to, I don't think it's out of line for me to expect to have the same kind of capability that law enforcement does."

A committee took more testimony Thursday night and will hold a final hearing on the gun-related bills Friday at noon.

Latz said the panel won't take votes on any of the individual gun bills, but will combine elements of all of them into a single catch-all measure known an omnibus bill.

He expects that bill to pass his committee before the March 15th deadline and go to Senate at some point after that.

A similar process will occur in the Minnesota House of Representatives, where the Public Safety Committee is weighing several firearms bills.

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All rights reserved. The material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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