At a crowded mid-February rally in the rotunda of the Minnesota Capitol, First Lady Gwen Walz told a supportive crowd that DFL lawmakers would pass a broad agenda to limit guns. She cited policies like raising the minimum age to buy certain semiautomatic rifles and restricting the capacity of magazines.
“We will pass the legislation you’ve heard about,” said Walz, who is a prominent advocate for gun regulations. “If you want to purchase military-style firearms, why don’t you just join the military?”
Even then, when the legislative session was still young, the pledge was a bit ambitious. At that point, Democratic leaders had essentially ruled out much of Gov. Tim Walz’s firearm wish list given the political realities of narrow majorities in the House and Senate.
Still, groups like Moms Demand Action spent the two months that followed lobbying the Legislature. They held more rallies and press conferences, and the governor hosted former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Mass shootings across the nation roiled the debate over limits on weapons. The governor made guns a focus in his State of the State speech and highlighted police support for some measures.
Meanwhile, dozens of sheriffs throughout Greater Minnesota campaigned to block a bill related to gun storage, and gun rights groups worked to convince a few key DFLers to side against their colleagues.
The end result? Democrats are resting their hopes on just two gun bills: one that extends background check rules to private transfers, and another that allows a judge to seize firearms from a person deemed a threat to themselves or others.
Both measures passed the Minnesota House on Wednesday. Now all eyes are on the state Senate, where Democrats have only a one-vote margin and Republicans appear united in opposition.
Four months into the legislative session, it’s still not totally clear where a few of those DFL senators in political swing districts stand despite immense pressure and repeated questions, leaving Minnesota in the dark on what might clear the Legislature. That includes Sens. Rob Kupec of Moorhead, Judy Seeberger of Afton, Grant Hauschild of Hermantown and Aric Putnam of St. Cloud.
“They probably know how they’re going to vote,” said Rob Doar, senior vice president of government affairs for the Gun Owners Caucus. “They just are keeping their hands close to their chest for fear of backlash on either side, either us lobbying them relentlessly to change their mind or the other side lobbying them relentlessly.”
The uncertainty in Minnesota stands in contrast to other Democratic-led states like Washington and Michigan, where lawmakers have passed new gun laws including a ban on selling certain semiautomatic weapons and a red flag law.
How a gun storage bill went down
From the start, it was always unlikely that Democrats would take on proposals like restricting the size of gun magazines. But the DFL nevertheless had slightly bigger hopes for gun policy than what turned out to be possible.
The House public safety committee seriously considered only a few controversial bills aimed at limiting gun use or access. That included what’s commonly known as a “red flag” law, in which a person can have their firearms seized if a judge determines they are at risk of suicide or a threat to others. It also included a bill long sought by the DFL to require background checks for private-party gun transfers.
But another bill — which became the first high-profile gun restriction to fail this year — would have expanded an existing gun storage law.
Current law makes it a gross misdemeanor to negligently store a loaded firearm where a child can use it. The new proposal would have required most people to store a gun unloaded with a locking device separate from ammunition unless the firearm was being carried or “under the control” of the owner.
The idea drew initial support from the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. But there was a flood of opposition from county sheriffs who argued in part that the policy would make it too difficult for a gun owner to defend themselves or would violate the U.S. Constitution. According to the Gun Owners Caucus, 79 sheriffs made public statements in opposition to the measure, representing the vast majority of Minnesota’s 87 counties.
The sheriffs in Minnesota’s most populous metro-area counties did not weigh in. And House bill sponsor Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, told reporters this week she felt the backlash was rooted in misinformation.
However, Doar said the justified outcry from law enforcement gave Greater Minnesota legislators cover to block the bill and “gave them some ability to look like they’re not for every single restriction.” Hauschild, the DFLer from Hermantown, told MinnPost he was a “big no on the gun storage law.”
“I think I was probably the main culprit that made sure that bill didn’t move forward,” Hauschild said. (The bill didn’t advance in the House either.)
In the Senate, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, proposed a smorgasbord of gun regulations like the capacity restrictions and a higher age limit for certain semiautomatic weapons. He also proposed creating a database of gun registrations and transfers, which Hauschild said he opposed. The legislation never gained traction.
What’s happened since
As the legislative session went on, the DFL, including the governor, drew its focus to the extreme risk law and background checks bill. The party cited favorable polling, research on effectiveness and some conservative support around the country as reasons why the measures could clear the Legislature while other bills could not.
Supporters tout the red flag proposal as a way to intervene when people are in crisis to stop suicides and shootings. Critics say the policy does not give people due process before their firearms are stripped.
With the prospects of the two policies still unknown, Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan have used their bully pulpit to cajole Democrats into action on guns as much as any issue at the Legislature this year.
Giffords came to Minnesota on March 30 and held a press conference at the Capitol where a host of Democrats spoke, along with the executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.
Flanagan has often told the story of her daughter being excited to win a treat in first grade for being the most quiet class during an active shooter drill. “At that moment, my heart broke,” Flanagan said during a rally on the Capitol steps Tuesday. “And I hugged her tighter than I probably ever have.”
Walz has chided Republicans for not supporting any limits on guns. He has brought up his background as a veteran, gun owner, hunter and former congressman who once held an A rating by the NRA and now holds an F. He has projected frustration and impatience and highlighted stories from victims of gun violence.
During his state of the state address, Walz said he’d put his gun credibility up against anyone as “one of the best shots in Congress.” But he said “we all know damn well weapons of war have no place in our schools, in our churches, in our banks.”
“The time for hiding behind thoughts and prayers is long gone. What we need is action and we need it now,” Walz said. “We’ve got a gun safety bill on the table. And we’re going to get it passed. And I’m gonna sign it. … We’re going to have universal background checks. We’re going to have red flag laws to keep guns out of the hands of people, and we’re going to have lawful gun owners not be impinged upon one bit.”
The Gun Owners Caucus has done its own public outreach. They have also held a rally, run advertisements and have a popular social media presence and lobby legislators in meetings and through public testimony.
“If the metro anti-gun politicians get their way, you could be prohibited from keeping a loaded firearm in your home for self-defense, charged with a crime for loaning a firearm to your hunting buddy, courts would be allowed to issue secret court orders to seize your guns,” says one Facebook ad urging people to contact Hauschild.
Even so, it’s not clear who has the upper hand.
The background check and red flag bills were approved by the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, and Seeberger voted for the new background check regulations after winning some changes to the measure. But the policies have not received a floor vote, and the committee chairman, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said Thursday that any gun policy will likely be part of an “omnibus” package of public safety legislation negotiated with the House closer to the end of the session on May 22.
DFLers are regularly asked by reporters whether they have enough DFL votes to pass the two bills.
“I’ve talked with all the members that have potential issues or concerns about it trying to find the sweet spot in terms of policy that they’d be comfortable with, and then the politics have to line up too,” Latz said. “It’s really been a fascinating kind of a game of chess in a sense … You never know where you’re going to end up until you try the final push.”
Two weeks ago, Maggiy Emery, executive director of the gun control organization Protect Minnesota, was also unsure of what the outcome might be when talking to reporters. She said there was work to do. “Our understanding is that it’s our job to find the votes for these bills,” Emery said.
Meanwhile, Doar said he’s attended town halls held by legislators across the state in an effort to better understand where lawmakers stand. Sometimes legislators are more candid in their home districts at events that can be away from reporters.
But Doar said none gave explicit stances for or against bills except the storage one. “Sen. Kupec at one of his town halls did say he had big concerns about the red flag law and its ability to be misused,” Doar said. “I took that to mean that barring some big changes in the bill, he didn’t support it as it was written.”
What those legislators are saying
Kupec and Seeberger declined an interview request, saying through a spokesman they are waiting to see the final version of legislation before making a decision. But MinnPost interviewed two DFL senators about gun regulations on Wednesday.
Putnam, from St. Cloud, said when he talks with people in his community, they’re usually on board with the background checks legislation. But he said the “overwhelming majority of conversations” are with people who are not fans of a red flag law “because they can be written poorly.”
He hasn’t ruled out voting for such a bill, though. Putnam said some regulation of firearms is reasonable in an effort to prevent self harm. And that could be some version of a red flag policy. “A lot of it is about how it’s written and how it actually works,” Putnam said. He said he still needs to “drill down” on the bill currently circulating at the Capitol to determine if it meets his standards.
Hauschild, from Hermantown, said he’s had lots of outreach from people on both sides of the issue and has regular check-ins with law enforcement on gun policy. He, too, said he’s still waiting to see “what these bills might ultimately look like and whether or not I can support them.”
Hauschild’s sprawling district, which covers most of the Arrowhead region stretching from Hermantown to Grand Marias, Ely and International Falls, has an unusual mix of more conservative rural voters, more centrist suburban ones, and some liberal ones in ultra-blue Cook County. That makes it a puzzle for Hauschild on guns and, well, every other issue, he said.
“I represent a district that is the size of Massachusetts, so in essence I represent a landmass that is what some governors have to deal with,” Hauschild said. “Grand Marias is a far cry from Big Fork in terms of their perspectives.”
He said that makes deciding how to vote on guns a “delicate balance.”
“I will say I really feel like we’re reaching a point where something has to be done and people seem to be saying that, that seems to be a common refrain,” Hauschild said. “But I think people are also afraid of what a more extreme gun control policy would look like.”
When might he finally make up his mind?
“Before the vote,” he said.