ST. PAUL, Minnesota — House lawmakers moved Thursday to legalize silencers and loosen the rules for bringing firearms onto the state Capitol grounds, reigniting debate over guns in Minnesota even as the leader of the Senate said he'd "like to stay out of the gun conversation" this year.
The House public safety committee passed a bill legalizing silencers over some Democratic lawmakers' objections. The committee also unanimously passed a measure that would repeal the current requirement that gun owners notify state officials before carrying a firearm into state buildings, instead automatically approving permitted owners.
A third proposal clarifying Minnesota residents' ability to buy guns in other states also passed unanimously.
The trio of measures to expand Minnesota's gun laws is a marked change for gun rights advocates, who just two years ago successfully fought to block legislation spurred after the 2013 Connecticut school shooting that would have expanded background checks and banned some assault weapons.
Proponents of expanding Minnesota's gun laws are aided this time around by Republicans takeover of the House, which put a vocal ally in a powerful position. Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, sported an assault rifle pin on his lapel as he chaired Thursday's House's public safety committee.
All those measures face a rougher path in the Democrat-controlled Senate and with Gov. Mark Dayton, who said Thursday he doesn't want to change the state's gun laws.
Still, both sides of the debate turned out in force Thursday to pack a House hearing room full. And the move to legalize silencers was the main attraction.
Opponents such as Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota, expressed concern that access to those muffling devices would hinder law enforcement's ability to pick up gunfire through "shot tracker" technology. She urged lawmakers to consider that a quieter firearm may give mass murderers more time before being detected.
"Silencers were designed to allow people to commit murder and get away with it," Martens said.
Proponents of the bill said there is no evidence that silencer use in the 39 states where they're legal matches up with their pop culture image as a tool of criminals and assassins. Gun class instructors and industry professionals told the committee that silencers merely help protect hearing on firing ranges and stressed that they cost more than $500 and are subject federal background checks.
Rep. Mark Anderson, the Lake Shore Republican leading the legalization push, stressed that they should be called suppressors — not silencers — because they only reduce the noise of a shot "from instantly damaging to just really, really loud."
"No, there won't be a rash of ninja-related shootings," Anderson said.
Those same proponents also portrayed simplifying the notification requirements for bringing a gun onto Capitol grounds as common sense.
They say getting a permit to carry through a county sheriff should suffice, noting that the state's notification process may not give safety officials a sense of how many gun owners are on Capitol grounds on a given day because notification is good for life.
"It's pretty clear that it doesn't provide any actual notification system," said Andrew Rothman, president of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance. Despite frequent trips to the Legislature, he hasn't had to tip off state officials since his first visit in 2003.
But for opponents, the suggested change was an opening to take issue with people bringing firearms to the Capitol at all.
"I see no reason for anyone to carry a gun around here," Joan Peterson from Duluth said. "Bad things actually do happen. Why make it easier for bad things to happen?"