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Rural DFLers could shoot down gun changes

ST. PAUL -- The message from Minnesota's rural Democratic senators about this week's gun-bill flurry is simple: Don't expect a warm reception in the Senate.

"The Senate has always been the more reasonable body," Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said Thursday, joining with others in saying rural senators cannot buy into many of the changes a House committee debated this week.

Guns have been the Minnesota political topic of the week, starting with President Barack Obama's Monday visit to Minneapolis promoting his anti-gun violence initiatives. Chairman Michael Paymar of the Minnesota House Public Safety Committee presided over five gun-related meetings in the following three days.

Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, said he plans to put all or parts of 10 bills into comprehensive gun legislation and give his committee one day to debate, amend and vote on the bill later this month.

One Democrat's bill ran into a polite buzz saw of opposition Thursday when he discussed a proposal to require a state permit before a Minnesotan could own body armor.

Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, went in front of Paymar's committee, the first time in his monthlong legislative career that he had promoted a bill. He said body armor has been used by many mass shooters and average people have no need for it.

"It should be reserved for the brave members of the military and law enforcement," Simonson told the committee.

Requiring permits would make it harder for criminals to get armor, he said. That could influence them not to commit crimes or make them more vulnerable if they do, he added.

Kelly agrees

Republicans praised Simonson's efforts, then ripped specifics in his bill.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said it could be better to increase penalties for criminals wearing body armor rather than require permits.

Others were critical because average Minnesotans who felt threatened, such as domestic abuse victims, would be forced to pay for a permit. One lawmaker pointed out that some football quarterbacks wear armor as production during football games, while some wondered if they would be able to keep bullet-proof vests they already have.

"It appears to me that we are punishing the super majority of citizens," Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, said. "My heart agrees with it, but once I think this through, I think it creates a lot of problems."

Simonson said he welcomed the comments and will work to craft a better bill.

Without rural Democrats, it would be tough to get enough votes to pass bills that do things such as ban assault weapons, forbid use of large ammunition magazines and require permits to own body armor. Those are among ideas a House committee heard this week and possibly up for debate in a Senate committee later this month.

Rural Democrats say that lawmakers' attention is on writing a two-year budget, increasing education funding and lowering property taxes. However, they do get feedback about guns.

"I have been hearing from constituents," Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said. "They are becoming further opposed to gun legislation."

The one factor that seems to bring together liberals and conservatives, rural and urban Minnesotans is a need to improve mental health treatment and keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill people who could be violent.

"Finally, mental health is getting the attention it deserves," Eken said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.