Democrats put gun restrictions in must-pass bill, daring Senate to act

Minnesota House Democrats slid two controversial gun control measures into a must-pass spending bill Thursday, daring Senate Republicans to hold a vote.

Democrats said they had little choice but to include both measures – universal background checks and extreme risk protective orders – because the Senate would’ve blocked standalone bills. By putting them in a public safety omnibus package, they’ll force negotiations with the other chamber.

“Either the Senate wants to vote for it or it doesn’t. It’s about as simple as that,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winker, DFL-Golden Valley.

The top Senate Republican countered that the gun legislation would fare no better in a package than as a standalone bill. Instead, Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said, the controversy could put the entire public safety agenda in jeopardy.

“It ends up being a stalemate. We’re not going to ever agree to that,” Gazelka told reporters.

One of the gun restrictions would require a background check before any gun sale or transfer, except to immediate family members. The other would allow police to take guns from people deemed by a judge to be threats to themselves or others.

The House bills have been a lightning rod this session as both gun owners and advocates of tougher gun restrictions have held rallies at the Capitol. They advanced through two committees, but the full House has not yet voted on them.

House Democrats said they belonged in a budget bill because the gun restrictions have a fiscal impact. But the political impact was also clear.

“We are bringing this to end of session negotiations. We are fighting every single way we know how to get gun violence prevention to be the law of the state of Minnesota,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “This is not a political ploy on our part. This is work for the people of Minnesota that they have asked us to do.”

Democrats have pointed to their electoral success in the Twin Cities suburbs last fall, where they flipped several House seats and retook control of the chamber. Gun restrictions were on voters’ minds, Democrats have warned Republicans in the Senate, which was not up for reelection in 2018.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Warren Limmer said in mid-March that he would not allow hearings on either gun bill. Two weeks later, Gazelka reversed course, saying the Senate would hold a hearing and vote – but only if the House passed standalone bills first.

“They chose not to, which means they’re basically dead. Those gun bills are dead,” Gazelka said Thursday.

The omnibus bill sits in the House Public Safety committee. The full House will hold a vote in late April, after the Legislature’s spring break, Winkler said on the House floor Thursday.

Lawmakers have six weeks left in the session to pass a budget. By mixing gun policy with less controversial public safety items, such as funding to hire more prison guards, Gazelka said it would “bog down” negotiations.

“The budgets at the end are already difficult,” he said. “So to put those in a budget bill that must be passed makes it very, very problematic.”