About a year ago, as Minnesota was getting ready to receive an influx of federal dollars from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, I called up state Representative Kelly Moller to get a sense of how the funding might change the conversation around gun laws in St. Paul. At the time, in September 2022, Minnesota didn’t have an extreme risk protection order, or red flag, law — one of the intended uses of the funding. I wanted to know if Moller thought the cash would increase the chances that the Legislature would pass one of its own, after her attempts to do just that had failed repeatedly.
She said something that turned out to be prescient: “It’s all going to depend on our election.”
Two months later, in November 2022, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party — as the Democratic Party is known in the state — clinched a sweeping victory, winning trifecta control of the state House, Senate, and Governor’s Office for the first time in a decade.
And, as it turns out, elections have consequences.
The DFL lawmakers passed a wish list of progressive policies, including protections for trans people and abortion rights, funding for public transportation, recreational marijuana, and paid family and medical leave. Gun reform wasn’t left off the list: Lawmakers approved not only a red flag law, but also universal background checks, one of the largest investments of any state in community violence intervention programs, and legislation to crack down on machine gun conversion devices.
“The public safety bill covers everything from prevention to rehabilitation and everything in between,” Moller told me when I called her again after the session. Following the election, she was appointed the chair of the Minnesota House Public Safety Committee and shepherded the omnibus bill that included the expansive gun reforms.
It might not be the story you’d expect from a heavily rural, Midwestern state like Minnesota, whose neighbors North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa have been loosening their gun laws in recent years. But Minnesota Democrats entered the session ready to aggressively pursue their agenda, with the understanding that it could be “a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” as Governor Tim Walz told The Washington Post.
Among other measures, the gun reform package expanded background check requirements to most private sales of handguns and assault-style weapons, and the extreme risk protection order provision allows law enforcement and courts to seize guns from people deemed to be in crisis. Those elements have been shown to be helpful at reducing firearm suicides. That’s particularly relevant in Minnesota, where most gun deaths tend to be self-inflicted, and most occur in rural and non-urban areas.
Aside from those attention-grabbing items, the package also included a massive $71 million investment in community violence intervention efforts, like hospital-based intervention and street outreach programs. (For comparison, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act included just $250 million in funding for CVI nationwide.) That provision is heavily focused on reducing homicides in urban areas, where Black Minnesotans are disproportionately killed, even as Minnesota has a lower-than-average homicide rate.
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While the election played a determinative role in getting gun reforms passed, Moller told me, it wasn’t the only thing that contributed. The midterms didn’t give the DFL supermajorities — far from it. Moller and her House colleagues still had to navigate a six-seat margin. And in the Senate, the margin was even narrower: The DFL had only one seat to spare, which they’d won by just 321 votes. With such slim majorities, you might anticipate that the party in power would leave with a blunted agenda, much like President Joe Biden’s was in Congress during his first two years in office.
That didn’t turn out to be the case in Minnesota, even amid a busy and hectic session: The DFL was able to avoid party infighting by striking deals and strategically narrowing its focus to keep its coalition together, including on the gun measures, which had the potential to alienate some moderate Democrats.
But it wasn’t just political maneuvering that got the public safety measures passed. Moller said testimony from advocates like survivors groups, doctors, and gun violence prevention organizations like Protect Minnesota also helped push the legislation across the line.
“After a few sessions that kind of stalled out and didn’t get many policies passed, I think there was a real hunger to be productive and to pass this stuff that’s going to make Minnesota better,” said Maggiy Emery, the executive director of Protect Minnesota.
The DFL also succeeded by repackaging gun violence prevention as a public safety issue, Emery said. That’s particularly important in a state like Minnesota, where a strong hunting and fishing culture continues today.
“So much of this work is narrative change and helping folks to understand that gun violence prevention is super popular across demographics, across party lines, and that gun violence prevention is public safety,” Emery said.
While Moller and her colleagues were able to get most of what they wanted on the gun reform front passed, some elements didn’t make it in. Proposals from Walz’s agenda, like raising the age to buy semiautomatic rifles and limiting magazine capacity, didn’t advance. A safe storage bill and legislation to require that people report their lost and stolen guns also failed this year. Those proposals will likely be back on the table next year when lawmakers return, Moller told me, and others may be, too — including a bid to ban assault weapons.
“Our work is not over,” Moller said. “We certainly recognize that the bills we passed, while they’re great steps forward to save lives, they’re not going to prevent all gun violence. So we’re going to continue to work on this issue.”
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Growing View of Gun Violence as an Epidemic May Help U.S. Limit It: Violence interruption groups, President Joe Biden, the U.S. surgeon general, and the American Medical Association have all called America’s gun violence problem an epidemic or a public health crisis. And for public health experts, NPR reports, the label is about more than just a name — they say it opens up new avenues for prevention.
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