Hearing highlights divide over guns in Minn. Capitol

Published 9:15 am Wednesday, August 21, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota residents on one side of America’s divide on guns urged lawmakers Tuesday to ban civilians from bringing firearms into the state Capitol, saying citizens have a right to feel free of intimidation when they participate in the democratic process.

But citizens on the other side countered that they shouldn’t have to give up their Second Amendment rights when they visit the Capitol. And they said those with carry permits have never caused security problems at the Statehouse.

They testified in St. Paul before an advisory committee reviewing Capitol security policies. Minnesota has long allowed anyone with a valid handgun permit to carry it at the Capitol so long as they give advance notice, and 841 people have done so. Changing that policy likely would require legislative approval. It was the committee’s second hearing on the subject this month, and this time the public got to speak.

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But the testimony did not appear to move the panel any closer to a decision on what actions, if any, to recommend.

“I don’t feel we have any clear consensus about where we need to go and whether anything needs to be done or not,” the panel’s chairwoman, Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, said as the hearing closed.

Several people testified they felt intimidated when they attended hearings earlier this year on legislation that would have tightened Minnesota’s gun laws. They were contentious events in which officials often had to set up overflow rooms with TV screens to accommodate the crowds. Many gun control opponents legally and openly carried their guns at the hearings.

“Allowing people with loaded guns into the Capitol doesn’t advance the democratic process. It shuts it down,” Ann Mongoven said.

One impetus for last winter’s hearings was a mass shooting last fall at Accent Signage in Minneapolis. Six people were killed by a worker who had just been fired and was able to buy his guns legally despite a history of mental illness.

“Don’t wait for the next tragedy to happen,” said Sami Rahamim, whose father, the company founder, was among those slain.

But gun rights supporters said banning permit holders from bringing their firearms to the Capitol won’t make it safer.

“Gun-free zones offer a target-rich and low-risk environment for people who want to inflict mass harm,” said Rob Doar, a firearms instructor and activist with the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance. “This is a solution in search of a problem.”

Members of the alliance, many wearing maroon T-shirts, packed the hearing room. Some wore openly holstered guns on their hips. The group’s president, Hamline University law professor Joseph Olson, said the current system works.

“What you should be afraid of are people who don’t have a permit, the people who have snuck into the Capitol and have a long history of doing nasty, evil things … They are the problem — not us,” he said.

Afterward, Prettner Solon told reporters there might be a middle ground, even if the advisory committee hasn’t found it yet.

“It may take a while for us to be able to talk about it. People tend to dig their heels in and want to protect their rights on either side of this issue,” she said. “There’s lots of room for movement. We don’t have to jump from one extreme to another extreme. There may be measures that we can take to ensure that there is more safety.”