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Tensions high as Minnesota lawmakers prepare to debate gun control bills at the Capitol

Lawmakers returned to the Minnesota State Capitol Jan. 8, 2019, for the reconvening of the Legislature. Michael Brun / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota lawmakers are set to consider two gun control proposals Wednesday, Feb. 27, amid an atmosphere that grew increasingly tense in the days before the hearing.

The bills would stoke strong feelings at any time. But moves by gun control supporters and opponents in the leadup to the hearing kindled further frustration among both groups.

Attempts to schedule the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division hearing at a suburban school last week and comments from a state lawmaker over the weekend stoked frustration among the bills' supporters and opponents. A day before the hearing, nearly a dozen amendments had been filed, and those interested in attending were told they'd be issued a ticket at the Capitol.

Lawmakers on the committee are set to hear testimony about and debate the proposals that would require additional background checks on some firearm purchases and let law enforcement officers remove guns from someone reported to pose a potential danger.

Democrats campaigned on the proposals last year and won a majority in the House of Representatives. But the proposals have generated opposition among Republicans, who hold a two-seat majority in the Senate.

Before lawmakers take up the debate, here's a look at what fueled additional uproar over the weekend.

A week before the hearing, Committee Chair Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, scheduled and rescheduled the meeting, first for a school in Edina, then at another school in Hopkins, before ultimately moving the venue back to the Capitol.

Gun control supporters said they wanted to hold the hearing at a school to give students, who they said were key stakeholders in the debate, a seat at the table. Gun rights advocates, meanwhile, said the move to hold the hearing at a school would further politicize the contentious issue.

“We wanted to hold a committee hearing on gun violence prevention in a school to offer students and parents an easier opportunity to offer their thoughts on an issue that has caused so much fear and stress for families," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said in a statement Friday night. "Instead of welcoming that discussion, the gun lobby directed their activists to badger local school district officials, including asking for gun carry requests because schools are gun-free zones."

Gun rights advocates, meanwhile, rejected the accusation and said House Democrats had attempted to move the hearing to win political points and skew the debate.

"This entire situation related to next week's hearing has been manufactured by House DFL Leadership," Bryan Strawser, chair of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus said in a statement on Saturday. "Had they chosen not to use students and schools as a prop for their anti-gun agenda, this entire issue could have been avoided."

Gun owners from around the state converged on the Capitol Saturday for a rally in support of the right to bear arms. And one lawmaker's statement there again fueled anger, this time from the bill's supporters.

“There’s a lot of us in this room that have had enough, and it’s time to start riding herd on the rest of these people that want to take your rights away from you," Rep. Cal Bahr, R-East Bethel, told the crowd at the rally. "They will not go quietly into the good night. They need to be kicked to the curb and stomped on and run over a few times.”

Legislative leaders from both political parties, Gov. Tim Walz and others were quick to condemn the statement and call for civility around the debate.

“That language never has any place in civil discourse," Walz told reporters on Tuesday. "It certainly doesn’t have it from a state elected official in the Capitol, and it certainly is not the way we go about this."

Bahr in a statement Monday said his comment was misinterpreted and that he referred to the bills themselves, not the people bringing or supporting them. In a statement, he said he was sorry for the confusion around the comment and does not condone violence.

"I urge everyone engaged in this debate to do so peacefully," Bahr said in a statement.

Wednesday's hearing is set to take place at 7 p.m. at the Minnesota Capitol.