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North Dakota lawmakers to consider new round of gun bills

The North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck. Photo illustration by Troy Becker

BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers are poised to consider bills allowing concealed weapon permit holders to pack heat in public buildings, legalizing so-called “bump stocks” that speed up a gun’s rate of fire and creating an “armed first responder program” in schools.

A round of gun legislation is scheduled to be heard in a House committee Thursday, Jan. 17. Already a conservative state with relatively high rates of firearm ownership, North Dakota is “becoming more gun-friendly,” according to Sebastian Ertelt, R-Lisbon, the primary sponsor of a few gun bills this session.

“I believe in the original intent of what the Constitution said,” said Dickinson Republican Rep. Luke Simons, the backer of several gun bills. “I carry mine every day in my chest pocket. … I give them out like candy on the floor.”

Two years ago, lawmakers approved a so-called “constitutional carry” law that generated plenty of headlines but little resistance in the Republican-controlled statehouse. The statute allows law-abiding people to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.

After signing the bill, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said “gun ownership is both a right and a responsibility, and that responsibility begins with individuals and families.” The governor’s spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, said Burgum is not pushing any gun legislation this session and would wait to comment on bills when they reach his desk.

Some legislation appears to be inspired by national events that occurred after lawmakers adjourned the 2017 session, including one that would legalize bump stocks that were used in the Las Vegas massacre later that year.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced in December it would clarify that bump stocks are illegal because they turn semiautomatic firearms into machine guns. Ertelt, who is a hunter and target shooter who belongs to a local gun club, said his bill is based on the “premise … that the executive branch of government doesn’t have law-making authority.”

But lawmakers will also consider separate legislation outlawing the devices and to impose a three-day waiting period on gun purchases. Fargo Democratic Rep. Pam Anderson was hopeful North Dakota could follow the example of Florida, which saw its Republican governor sign gun restrictions after the deadly Parkland high school shooting last year.

“Why can’t we?” she said. “My American dream is that my grandkids don’t get shot in school.”

Anderson’s bill had not yet been formally introduced Friday morning or scheduled for a hearing.

Cheryl Biller, the volunteer leader for the North Dakota chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said the group supports a “North Dakota tradition of responsible gun ownership” but plans to mobilize its 820 volunteers to make their case against any relaxing of gun restrictions that could hamper public safety.

“We understand that there is an entrenched way of thinking about gun ownership and what people should be able to do with their guns,” she said. “We are now mobilizing to say there are a lot of us who haven’t spoken up before but we feel different.”

Republican Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, the chief backer of the permitless carry bill in 2017, guessed this year’s push for pro-gun legislation could be a response to “certain portions of Congress” that “want to put on significant restrictions on gun rights.”

“So a response to that, of course, is to say, ‘What can we do here?” Becker said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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