Capitol panel is split on guns

Published 10:43 am Thursday, August 15, 2013

ST. PAUL — A task force of state officials studying security at the Minnesota Capitol got swept up in gun politics Wednesday as they debated whether handguns should continue to be allowed in the building.

The six-member Advisory Committee on Capitol Security is charged with recommending security enhancements for the Capitol complex in St. Paul. Current rules require that anyone who intends to carry a handgun in the complex must send an email to the Commissioner of Public Safety, which had more than 800 emails as of Wednesday but often doesn’t check to see if the sender has a valid gun permit.

A former deputy U.S. marshal advising the panel, Steven Swensen, sent the group a memorandum arguing that guns should be prohibited in the Capitol. He said allowing citizens to carry guns in the building “unequivocally increases the risk of targeted and indiscriminate violence” against elected and appointed officials, employees, visitors and security officers.

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The panel’s chairwoman, Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, echoed those concerns, saying she worried about someone using a gun in response to a heated discussion or vote. She also noted that most county courthouses in Minnesota ban handguns.

“Not everyone has great control over their emotions,” Prettner Solon said.

She joined another Democrat on the panel in suggesting it was time to decide whether people with handgun permits should be able to bring them inside the Capitol. “We can’t keep pushing it aside and saying, ‘Oh, we’ve never had an incident here so it’s going to be OK,’” she said.

But several Republican members said law-abiding citizens who carry handguns are not the risk.

“People who want to do ill, will do ill,” said Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine. “What we’re talking about here is access by people with legal permits to carry.”

The panel made no decision on the issue, but another hearing is set for next week to get public comment. Other members include Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea and four state lawmakers — two Democrats and two Republicans. About two dozen gun rights supporters showed up for the hearing in matching T-shirts, while a scattering of gun control supporters were also on hand.

Swensen, who didn’t attend the hearing, agreed that legal handgun owners were not likely to initiate violence.

But he said simply having guns in the building increases the chance that one could accidentally discharge, get misplaced or be grabbed during a heated confrontation. He also said prohibiting guns allows Capitol officers respond more decisively.

“It needs to be controlled,” Swensen, who now leads St. Paul’s Center for Judicial and Executive Security, told The Associated Press. “If guns aren’t allowed and they witness someone with a gun, they clearly know right away that it’s someone who shouldn’t be there.”

As of Wednesday, 832 people had sent emails to the Commission of Public Safety saying they intended to carry a handgun into the Capitol complex, according to State Patrol Capt. Bob Meyerson, who manages Capitol Security. He admitted the agency typically does not check to be sure those individuals have valid gun permits.

Prettner Solon said the panel is early in its discussion and that any recommendations for changes are a ways off.

Gov. Mark Dayton said he was not convinced that guns needed to be banned at the Capitol. He said the only way to enforce a gun ban would be to add metal detectors and staff them around the clock.

“At this point, is the threat greater than the financial and other burden? I would say not,” Dayton said when asked about the issued during an unrelated event in St. Paul. “Obviously any one incident would tip the scales enormously.”