Gun violence prevention advocates, critics clash over Minnesota ‘red flag' bill

Critics of one gun violence bill at the Minnesota State Capitol painted a dire picture this week of police storming into homes and seizing guns.

Not so, according to advocates of tougher gun restrictions who are pushing the so-called “red flag” bill in the state Legislature. The measure would allow police and family members to seek protective orders allowing police to take guns from people who pose a threat to themselves or others.

“It's not government just barging in, it's government doing its job, making sure that our families are safe, our individuals are safe, our communities are safe," said Nancy Nord Bence, executive director of the St. Paul-based advocacy group Protect Minnesota. 

The bill is one of two that top House Democrats’ priority list this session. The other, a requirement that all gun buyers get a criminal background check before purchasing from a private seller, has long been debated. Protective orders have received less attention, but have gained appeal after the mass shooting at a Florida high school in 2018. 

Eight other states allow police and family members to request a judge issue a protective order, according to the Giffords Law Center, an advocacy group tied to former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who in 2011 was severely hurt in a mass shooting. A handful of other states allow only law enforcement agencies to seek an order. 

The law has been in the spotlight in Maryland, where police in November shot and killed a man as they tried to serve an order removing guns from his home.

The 61-year-old man was “irate” and refused to give up a gun, police said in news reports of the incident. During a struggle, the gun went off and police shot the man, the reports indicate.

The Maryland incident drew the attention of Minnesota State Representative Tim Miller, who pointed to the case this week while arguing the law itself is dangerous.

“The government sent their police officers, who broke into a home, smashed through a door unannounced, only to have the government officer kill the person unsuspecting there as they stole his gun from him,” said Miller, R-Prinsburg.

Miller said red flag laws are unsafe for police officers and take freedoms away from residents in states where the measure is on the books.

Yet the police chief in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, where the shooting happened, defended the law and wondered what would have happened if officers had not gone to the man’s home. 

Minnesota gun violence prevention advocates said the law would build upon existing protective orders in domestic abuse cases.

“If we're preparing police to do this in situations of domestic violence, we can also prepare police to do this in the case of a possible suicide risk or a risk to others,” Nord Bence said. 

Gov. Tim Walz endorsed the bill and the second measure requiring background checks on all private gun sales. But, both pieces of legislation face likely opposition in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

The background check bill no longer requires private sellers to do a criminal check on the would-be buyer. Instead, the buyer would have to seek a permit from law enforcement and present it to the seller before the transaction, Nord Bence said.