Despite broad statewide support in a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll for several gun control proposals recently introduced at the State Capitol, there's little optimism even among strong supporters that the Legislature will do anything this year to put new limits on gun sales.
As the U.S. debate over guns raged anew in recent months, some Minnesota lawmakers tried to capitalize with a renewed push for changes to state law. A few even earned bipartisan support: a measure to make background checks mandatory for all gun sales, and another to require that stolen or lost guns be reported to police.
The Minnesota Poll found overwhelming support for both of those proposals. Asked whether criminal background checks should be mandatory on all gun sales — current state law has exceptions for private sales — a full 90 percent of poll respondents said yes, with only 8 percent opposed. And 86 percent said it should be mandatory to report stolen or lost guns to police.
In both cases, those high levels of support cut across political and demographic lines, with overwhelming support in both the Twin Cities and the rest of the state, among women and men, Democrats and Republicans, all ages and education levels, and even among gun owners.
Still, legislators and lobbyists said neither those nor other gun control laws are likely to progress this year in St. Paul, with Republican legislative leaders showing no willingness to take them up. That might help explain another poll finding: 41 percent of Minnesotans said the Legislature has not done enough on gun control. Twenty percent said state lawmakers have gone too far on gun control, while 21 percent were satisfied.
"I don't think any legislative body is going far enough — locally or nationally," said Scott Turner, a 56-year-old father of three who lives in Long Lake, owns guns and enjoys shooting sports. "They should have a background check on every gun sold in this country. You need a license to drive a car."
The Minnesota Poll interviewed 625 registered voters April 15-18 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. A slim majority of the respondents — 52 percent — live in a house where someone owns a gun.
The background check and reporting measures were introduced by two Republican and two DFL senators, all with largely suburban constituencies. But the current inaction on guns at the Legislature is by design: The Republicans who control the Legislature — and a fair amount of DFL lawmakers — have deeply held beliefs about gun rights and question whether polling on guns accurately captures the views of gun owners.
"More than 30 years of Minnesota history shows that when politicians who don't understand guns try to grab guns, they lose," said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, a 14-year veteran of the state House. Garofalo said he believes debate over guns in 2010 and 2014 helped Republicans gain ground in legislative elections.
"From a purely political perspective, I want Democrats talking about gun control, particularly metro Democrats," he said.
Pat Stauffenecker, a 48-year-old father of two girls who lives in Esko and was polled, said lawmakers should be wary of new gun laws. Background checks on private gun sales between family, friends and neighbors are a burdensome imposition on lawful gun owners that won't lead to crime reduction, he said.
"Criminals will get the gun regardless. Even if it's mandatory to do the background check, the criminals won't do it. Why would they?" asked Stauffenecker, who said he hunts and shoots frequently with family and friends. "To assume that's going to solve any problems is ridiculous."
But, in the face of decades of legislative and political losses, gun control advocates say they are energized by the wave of student activism that began after the deadly shootings at a Florida high school on Feb. 14.
Lawmakers have pushed for other changes. Just last week, state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, offered a measure that would have allowed authorities to take away a person's guns if the individual were deemed dangerous — sometimes called a "gun violence protective order" or "red flag" law. Another proposal would have required a bill of sale in all private gun transactions.
Both those proposals died in a Senate committee; a handful of other gun proposals were denied hearings.
Minnesotans will elect a new governor in November; a Republican victory would likely mean full GOP control of state government, which would greatly lessen the chance of major gun control measures for at least four more years.
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who announced his candidacy for his old job this month, declined an interview request for this story. His campaign referred to remarks about guns he made at a recent news conference.
Pawlenty, who served from 2003 to 2011 and who signed Minnesota's open carry law, said earlier in April that he favors outlawing "bump stocks," the rapid-fire devices used in the Las Vegas massacre last October. He also said he favors allowing people who are not licensed gun dealers voluntary access to the background check system and giving the seller legal "safe harbor" if he performs a check.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a leading DFL candidate for governor, said that if elected he would work to expand background checks, ban certain types of "assault rifles" and allow gun violence protective orders.
Walz, who spent 24 years in the Army National Guard and is an accomplished marksman, had previously been supported by the National Rifle Association. He has come under fierce attack from his DFL rivals for governor, state Rep. Erin Murphy and State Auditor Rebecca Otto, for those NRA ties.
Walz's openness to gun control measures reflects that of Minnesotans polled, at least on the question of background checks. The Star Tribune has been asking about stricter background checks since 2013, and Minnesotans have grown steadily more supportive.
In early 2013, just months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, 72 percent of Minnesotans favored these checks. In 2016, the number jumped to 82 percent; it's 90 percent in the new poll.
Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, a prosecutor and gun control advocate, said the poll reflects what he's been hearing, "that we need to be doing more to be keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people."
But Pinto acknowledged the long odds at the Legislature. "The majority [Republicans] are simply not willing to take any steps whatsoever," he said.
Staff writer Judy Keen contributed to this report. J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042