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Schoen bill part of legislative gun debate

Rep. Dan Schoen listens as lawmakers debate his bill to keep guns from untreated mentally ill people. Photo by Don Davis/State Capitol Bureau

Rep. Dan Schoen has entered the gun debate at the Minnesota Capitol as he proposes using law enforcement information to possibly limit gun permits to people with untreated severe mental illness.

"This is not about trying to prevent them from getting it," Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, said of someone with a severe mental illness who seeks a gun permit. "This is about making sure they're safe when they do."

The bill Schoen is pushing would allow police chiefs and sheriffs, who review permits to purchase handguns and permits to carry handguns, to request that an applicant see a doctor or mental health expert if that person has had previous police contact that leads law enforcement to believe there is an untreated severe mental illness.

If the medical expert returns a letter stating that the applicant is not violently and seriously mentally ill or chemically dependent, a police chief or sheriff may issue the permit, but would not be required to.

An applicant denied a permit could appeal the decision in district court.

Schoen, who works as a Cottage Grove police officer, said in an interview that authorities on a daily basis see people with untreated mental illness during "crisis moments." Those encounters are not necessarily considered in the current gun permit request process.

"This bill allows local law enforcement to use the information they develop on a daily basis while responding to calls, to request that someone get further review prior to being granted a permit to carry or to purchase a firearm," Schoen told lawmakers during his Feb. 5 committee testimony.

The legislation is supported by state police chiefs and sheriffs associations. Cottage Grove Public Safety Director Craig Woolery and Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague attended the hearing to support Schoen's legislation, he said.

But some legislators and gun-rights proponents said the proposal would give law enforcement too much discretion, even after someone received a positive medical review, while others questioned who would pay for someone's police-ordered mental health check. They also wondered why a doctor would risk getting involved.

Mental health advocates also raised concerns.

Focusing on people who live with serious mental illness is unlikely to have an effect on gun violence, said Sue Abderholden of the National Alliance on Mental Health, who testified against Schoen's bill. The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, Abderholden noted, and further gun restrictions could stigmatize people and deter them from seeking help.

Schoen said he is willing to work with opponents of his bill during the legislative process.

The bill is one of several being considered by lawmakers amid a national gun debate triggered by a string of mass shootings. Schoen said he has not decided whether to support all of the gun-related legislation being proposed, such as a ban on assault rifles and tighter background checks.

"I'm signed onto bills that are common-sense property owners' rights and those bills that make sure dangerous people don't have guns," he said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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