Walz Calls For New Gun Safety Measures In State Of The State Speech At Owatonna High School

General view of Owatonna High School prior to Gov. Tim Walz's State of the State address on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Owatonna, Minn.. (Clay Masters/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)
General view of Owatonna High School prior to Gov. Tim Walz's State of the State address on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Owatonna, Minn.. (Clay Masters/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Tim Walz used the backdrop of a gleaming new high school Tuesday night to call on the Legislature in his State of the State speech to enact new gun control measures to make schools and communities safer, while touting the achievements of last year's legislative session.

Walz went to Owatonna High School to hold up how the southern Minnesota community has made big investments in education and workforce development and to use it as an example for how the rest of the state can make progress. The local business community and voters teamed up a few years ago to raise the money after decades of talk about replacing a century-old building.

“That small window of opportunity — that brief moment when the stars aligned — produced a community institution that you’re in today that will stand for decades and will impact tens of thousands of children,” Walz said.

Walz called for prompt action to strengthen requirements for safe storage of firearms, require better reporting of lost and stolen guns, and raise penalties for “straw buyers” who purchase firearms for people who can’t legally have them because of their criminal records.

Walz referred to the killings of three first responders in Burnsville last month by a convicted felon who allegedly obtained his guns by having his girlfriend buy them. Such purchases are a felony with tough penalties under federal law, but just a gross misdemeanor under state law, punishable by no more than a year in jail. Lawmakers who want to change that say local prosecutors are reluctant to file such cases because of the low penalties.

“We know that we can’t legislate against every act of violence but surely we can do more,” Walz said.

Saying high schoolers should be worried about pop quizzes and prom dates, not mass shootings, Walz noted that he signed legislation last year for a “red flag” law to allow courts to temporarily take guns away from people in crisis, and to strengthen background checks for gun purchases.

Walz used the example of the Owatonna community coming together to build the new high school to segue into a lengthy discussion of measures that he and the Democratic-controlled Legislature were able to enact last year after years of divided government. He cited raises in state aid to schools, higher teacher pay, more mental health resources for schools, and expanded special education and career and technical education.

And he noted that the 2023 Legislature passed new protections for abortion rights. On that theme, Walz pledged to protect the rights of families to use in-vitro fertilization, citing a court ruling against IVF in Alabama that has turned into a potent political issue nationwide. Walz said it's personal for him. He and his wife, Gwen, had to turn to it to conceive their first child.

“When Gwen and I were having trouble getting pregnant, the anxiety, the frustration, would have blotted out the sun,” he said. “All we wanted was something that seemed so simple -- to have that child. What those judges did was a direct attack on our family. It was a direct attack on my children. Gwen and I will not forget it. Nor will we forgive it. And neither will thousands across this state.”

Republican legislative leaders said afterward that they've supported tougher sentences for straw buyers for years but have been thwarted by Democrats before. House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, of Cold Spring, and Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, of East Grand Forks, also said Democrats shouldn't link that proposal with the other gun proposals, which many Republicans oppose.

This was Walz's sixth State of the State speech since taking office in 2019. Governors traditionally deliver them at the Capitol. But he gave his 2020 address by himself via livestream from his official residence during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. He faced another online audience in 2021 when he spoke from Mankato West High School, where he was once a geography teacher and football coach.

The main task this legislative session is a public infrastructure borrowing package known as a bonding bill, which will require at least some bipartisan cooperation to achieve the necessary 60% supermajorities needed to pass it. Walz touted the package he proposed in January, a combination of $982 million that focuses on maintaining existing infrastructure, like roads, bridges and water treatment facilities, along with more affordable housing and starting the process for building a new headquarters for the State Patrol.

“There’s no reason that both parties can’t be part of getting this done. I know we’re not going to agree on everything. Safe streets, we can agree on. Clean water, we can agree on. Affordable housing, we can agree on. So I’m asking you to join me, and not just at the ribbon cutting — but in the work to get it done in the first place.”

While Walz said the state of the state is strong, Johnson said the governor painted too rosy a picture. He said Republicans are seeing a lot of pessimism across the state. Schools are falling behind, he said, while communities are struggling to keep businesses and law enforcement is struggling to keep communities safe.

Democratic leaders said they appreciated Walz’s hopeful tone. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, said there was a lot to celebrate from the 2023 session but that she liked how the governor talked about how one day they’ll all walk out of the state Capitol for the last time, and they’ll have to ask themselves whether the things they did were worthy of Minnesotans.

“And I think the answer is a resounding yes for the work that we’ve done so far,” she said. “And there’s more to come.”