ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- A pair of gun violence prevention measures long sought by Minnesota Democrats were added Wednesday to a broad public safety budget bill, significantly raising their chances of becoming law.
By unanimous voice votes, an all-Democratic House-Senate conference committee approved expanded background checks for gun transfers and a separate proposal for a "red flag law." It would allow authorities to obtain "extreme risk protection orders" to temporarily take guns away from people deemed to be an imminent threat to others or themselves.
But the gun measures still have a ways to go before they can become law. The conference committee had other work to complete on the package before sending it back to the full House and Senate. Lawmakers will then have to vote on the entire must-pass funding bill, which could make the choice easier to swallow for a handful of rural Democratic senators who have been on the fence. Democratic Gov. Tim Walz has pledged to sign it.
Michigan, another Midwest state where gun-owning culture runs deep, is also close to passing a red flag law, and adopted a background check bill last month. While red flag laws are touted as a powerful tool to stop gun violence before it happens, an Associated Press analysis in September found that they are barely used in the 19 states and the District of Columbia where they exist.
While the Minnesota House had included the two proposals in its version of the bill, it has been an open question all year whether supporters could find enough votes in the Senate, where Democrats hold only a one-seat majority and left the language out of their version. The conference committee's action Wednesday suggested that sponsors think they now have the votes.
Committee members pointed to the record pace of mass shootings across the United States this year, which seem to be widening the political divide among states on guns. Despite a mass shooting at an outdoor shopping mall near Dallas on Saturday, momentum in Texas flickered out Wednesday after Republicans stalled a bill that would raise the purchase age for AR-style rifles.
Sen. Bonnie Westlin, of Plymouth, said the shooters are frequently experiencing suicidal episodes, and there is often some kind of warning that they are in crisis.
"No one has ever said any one of these provisions will completely eliminate gun violence and gun deaths and gun injuries. No one has ever made that statement," Westlin said. "But this is about harm reduction. It is about risk reduction. It is about acknowledging and intervening and helping people before something happens."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Ron Latz, of St. Louis Park, has fought for years to advance both proposals but was blocked in previous sessions by the former Senate Republican majority. He disputed the argument from gun rights supporters that guns aren't the problem, it's people.
"Neither of these bills ban firearms," Latz said. "These bills focus on the people. Separating the firearms from the people who are resisting the law and ineligible to possess firearms and therefore shouldn't have them -- or people, because of the crisis that they're in, (who) are an immediate threat to the safety of themselves or their family or others around them
The Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, which contends the proposals would be unconstitutional violations of the Second Amendment, decried how the all-Democratic conference committee rushed through the measures unanimously, with little public discussion and without taking testimony.
"By packaging it together with funding for corrections, courts, and public defenders, they are giving political cover to vulnerable senators," the group tweeted. It specifically named Democratic Sens. Rob Kupec, of Moorhead, Grant Hauschild, of Hermantown, Judy Seeberger, of Afton, and Aric Putnam, of St. Cloud, some of whom have avoided taking public positions so far.
"It remains to be seen if Senate Democrats have the votes to pass their public safety bill," GOP Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, of East Grand Forks, said in a statement. "The self-described moderates will have to decide if they will stay true to the promises to their constituents or bend to the will of party leadership."