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Gun rights debate rages in Capitol, region

REGIONAL — Gun law reform has generated community debate following the recent announcement of a push to amend Minnesota’s Constitution to specifically protect citizens’ right to bear arms.

Minnesota is one of only six states whose state constitution does not include an affirmation of the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — namely, the right to bear and keep arms. The Minnesota Republican Caucus would like to change that.

This proposed amendment comes on the heels of two bills that seek to impose further regulations on gun sale and rights.

House File 8 proposes universal background checks for all gun sales in the state, including at private gun sales and online. It would require a private seller to ensure that a buyer is eligible for firearm ownership according to federal criteria prior to making the sale.

House File 9 proposes what is called a “red flag” policy — a law that would allow family members to petition a court to temporarily prevent a person from possessing firearms on the grounds that he or she poses a danger to self or others. He or she would be required to surrender all firearms in possession and be prevented from purchasing additional firearms, both for a predetermined time period established by the court.

The constitutional amendment and both regulatory bills have a common goal: to address what District 64B Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, called the “daily drumbeat of death” — the plague of gun violence.

Although legislators and constituents alike generally agree on the problem, they continue to dispute the solution.

Aware of the strong opinions on both sides of this issue, the chair of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division—  District 65B Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul — prefaced a Feb, 27 committee discussion by setting a standard of mutual respect on both sides of the aisle.

“I’m committed to overseeing a respectful, open, careful listening session with all perspectives — all perspectives — respected,” he said.

“We will have strong debate … but respectful debate,” he added.

To ensure that, both sides received equal time to present their arguments and answer questions.

While presenting HF8, author District 64B Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, expressed intent to satisfy both sides of the aisle.

“We can do more to keep guns out of the hands of people who have proven themselves to be dangerous,” he said, “and at the same time uphold the rights of those many responsible, law-abiding gun owners.”

The committee was in session for five hours debating HF8 and HF9, finally calling for a recess at midnight and re-convening last Thursday morning to finish the discussion. The committee ultimately voted favorably on both bills, and the proposed legislation continued through the committee process.

The central question of the debate seems to be this: Does the provision that the right to bear arms “shall not be infringed” imply that gun ownership cannot be regulated?

Some folks think not.

“No rights are absolute,” said Luverne resident and retired lawyer Carole Ryden, pointing out that the freedom of speech is regulated — it’s illegal to yell “fire” in a crowded place when there is no fire, and illegal to use inciting language that provokes violence.

Ryden added that “the pursuit of happiness” as discussed in the Declaration of Independence is widely considered a right, but it doesn’t allow people to go for a 100-mph joyride just because it makes them happy. She thinks the same logic ought to apply to the Second Amendment.

On the other hand, some people think that more regulation is a violation of their rights, particularly if it doesn’t actually decrease gun violence.

Dave Dobernecker of Dave’s Gunsmithing in Adrian asserted that firearm ownership in and of itself is not what causes gun violence. Many gun owners are sportsmen who shoot trap or hunt. Many also feel it is important to have a gun for personal and/or home protection.

“I’m not in (the business of selling firearms) for the sale,” Dobernecker said. “I’m in it for responsible armed people.”

Dobernecker added that he reserves the right to refuse a sale to anyone he feels shouldn’t own a firearm, even if the person passed a background check.

In the concealed carry classes Dobernecker teaches, he emphasizes that using a firearm against another human being is only self-defense if it’s the last resort.

“I would rather use a stun gun or pepper spray” for self-defense, he said, but stun guns can only be used within arms length and pepper spray within 20 feet. He added that in many self-defense situations, a firearm is required due to distance.

Dobernecker feels that additional gun regulations will only hurt responsible gun owners. He believes the solution to gun violence is to increase sentences for criminal convictions and prohibit any person who has been admitted to an inpatient mental health facility from firearm ownership.

Ron Menning, owner of K & R Firearms in Edgerton, also weighed in on how the Capitol discussion might affect gun owners locally.

He feels that “senators who have never even owned a firearm” are not the best qualified to be making these decisions. He posited that more gun owners in the state live in Greater Minnesota, but the legislators proposing more gun regulations don’t.

It is impossible to tell whether or not that impression is supported by data because many statistics simply don’t exist about gun ownership statewide — another complication to an already entangled web of controversy.

Even if the majority of Minnesota gun owners do live in rural areas, not everyone agrees that this would disqualify metro-area legislators who don’t own guns from writing firearm legislation.

“You don’t need to own a gun to know about them,” Ryden asserted. “And just because you own a gun doesn’t mean you understand how they affect other people.”

She also believes the crux of the issue is that lots of people on both sides of the gun rights debate haven’t taken the time to listen to their opponents.

Last week’s five-hour House debate is evidence that legislators want to work together to protect both Constitutional rights and personal safety. HF8 and HF9 are making their way through the committee process in the House.

The proposal to amend the state constitution is also being discussed by state representatives. In order to pass, it must get a majority vote in both the House and the Senate. If both chambers vote favorably, the proposed amendment must be put to the voters in a general election.

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