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Background checks key in gun debate

ST. PAUL -- Universal background checks for gun buyers remain a focus of gun control discussion at the state Capitol.

The plan is among the more controversial that remain before lawmakers this year in an effort to curb gun violence in Minnesota. A number of proposals have been raised this session, but final bills have been whittled down.

Background checks on gun purchasers are not required for private sales, which some say is a dangerous loophole.

"If we really are serious about reducing gun violence in our state, this is the course," Dennis Flaherty, Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association director, said of expanded checks.

Bill author Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said the change is widely supported throughout Minnesota.

"It would be, at most, a minor inconvenience," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday evening.

Latz's gun control plan also would give law enforcement officials more discretion to reject permits for those considered dangerous and strengthen penalties for straw purchases, in which people buy guns for those who are not allowed to have one, and for illegally possessing firearms.

He said his plan incorporated earlier proposals and comments from the public and others during testimony.

"There aren't any real surprises here," he said Thursday.

Some lawmakers have proposed bills without added background checks.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, released a similar bill that includes stronger straw purchase and illegal possession penalties and makes improvements to the existing state and federal background check system. Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, announced a bill earlier this month that she said would close gaps in existing law.

Both bills are backed by the National Rifle Association.

"NRA applauds Sen. Ortman and the dozens of bipartisan co-authors for protecting and respecting the Second Amendment and getting tough on crime," NRA spokesman Chris Rager said.

None of the proposals includes banning high-capacity magazines and so-called assault rifles. Those were the most contentious gun control provisions initially discussed.

The future of gun control proposals remains hazy for the state Legislature this year.

Many rural Democrats have sided with Republicans against major changes to gun laws.

Lawmakers heard many hours of testimony when gun proposals were first discussed and planned to only take comments Thursday from groups that had worked on the legislation.

The House plans to discuss an overall gun control proposal next week.