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Mary Streufert of Duluth, whose daughter Carin was shot, tells a Senate committee at the state Capitol on Thursday that gun control measures that can save any lives make a big difference. (Danielle Killey/Forum News Service>

Mental health concerns central in gun debate

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ST. PAUL -- Stricter regulations on gun purchases could discourage people dealing with mental illness from seeking treatment, some mental health advocates say.

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Concerns stemmed from a bill discussed Thursday that would expand background checks and tighten eligibility requirements for gun purchases, including preventing the mentally ill from buying guns. Some worried the provision was too broad and could have a negative impact.

"It's necessary to look beyond a diagnosis of mental illness and look at an individual's background," Trisha Stark of the Minnesota Psychological Association said during a Senate committee meeting focused on gun control proposals.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said she is concerned about the "imposition" on the mentally ill in the proposal. Others worried about the stigma that could come from such restrictions.

"For the vast majority of people with mental illness, violence is not an issue," National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota Director Sue Abderholden said. "We need to unlink mental illness and violence."

Mental health care could do more to prevent violence than limitations on who can purchase guns, Abderholden said.

She said for the mentally ill who could become violent, early treatment is critical, especially in young people.

National Rifle Association spokesman Chris Rager said the organization is concerned about the "mental health disqualifications" in the bill as well. He said some people would have to choose between getting treatment and the right to own a gun.

Bill author Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, said he is working with NAMI and other groups on the mental illness restrictions.

The bill proposed extended background check requirements to all gun sales, including private ones.

Champion emphasized the bill would not implement gun registration.

"A lot of folks don't want their firearms taxed, tracked or taken," Rager said.

Hastings Police Chief Paul Schnell said background checks combined with the proposed expanded ineligibility would give police officers more time and control to consider difficult situations.

The committee also discussed a bill that would make it easier for prosecutors to crack down on gun purchases for felons made by someone else.

Gun debate began even before the committee hearing Thursday.

During a full Senate meeting, Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, took the rare action to ask the Senate to remove his bill from committee and vote on it without a hearing. The attempt failed along party lines in the DFL-controlled Senate. It would have sent a message to the president and Congress to respect the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and not violate it.

Later, Nienow said his bill will be on the agenda today as the Senate committee continues to discuss gun legislation.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said taking a full Senate vote before any committee considered the bill would shut the public out of the discussion.

Three Republicans surprised Democrats and removed their gun-related bills from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Judiciary Chairman Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he would not discuss a ban on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines, both controversial proposals heard earlier this month in the House alongside other gun-related bills.

The Senate hearing was the first of three to be held this week addressing gun violence issues. Senators will not vote on the bills this week, but they will be considered for inclusion in an overall gun bill.

Don Davis contributed to this story.

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