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Big unanswered question in Capitol gun debate: Why do they need to wear a gun there?

Not one of the seven gun advocates testifying Tuesday had anything to say about why they needed a gun at the Capitol.

Footage from Tuesday’s Advisory Committee on Capitol Area Security courtesy of The UpTake.

The Minnesota state Capitol has almost no security. A disgruntled constituent can pretty much walk right in, sit right down and threaten any passing legislator or public servant with a SIG Sauer, a Beretta or some less-lethal weapon like a steak knife or a whipped cream pie.

Obviously it’s against the law to attack people. But at the State Capitol I have never seen guards checking people for weapons. There are no metal detectors, and except for a few restricted areas that require key cards, a visitor is free to roam wherever he wishes.

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So it’s ironic that the burning question before the Advisory Committee on Capitol Area Security last week and again Tuesday is whether gun owners with permits should be allowed to bring their weapons into the Capitol. Right now, state law allows them to pack heat as long as they have a valid permit and notify the commissioner of Public Safety in advance. 

Apparently, this fact came as something of a shock to gun-control proponents when they attended raucous gun safety hearings last February. Like many people, they assumed that guns were banned from state government buildings just as they are from the Mall of America, the Metrodome, hospitals, courthouses, schools, the Hennepin County Government Center and the Sears store a couple of blocks away.

Pro-gun-rights folks had turned up in force, many of them armed with their favorite equalizers. The sight of so much hardware at the February hearings was “deeply intimidating,” says Anna Gambucci, who testified back then and again on Tuesday. “People carrying weapons were acting as though they were above the law.”

So at the Advisory Committee’s June meeting there came a suggestion from Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, who had chaired some of those raucous hearings, that it review and discuss existing gun policy.

The Advisory Committee itself, which is currently chaired by Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, came into being by recommendation of a 2009 report (PDF) from the Office of the Legislative Auditor. Its chief finding: “Minnesota’s Capitol Complex has significant security vulnerabilities.” According to the report, one of the major decisions to be made was “whether (and perhaps how) to install weapons screening in some of the state’s most visible buildings.”

The state actually owns some of this equipment; it’s sitting in the basement and taken out, I guess, only for special occasions, maybe a visit from the President or a foreign dignitary. Fearing bitter criticism from constituents who believe that citizens should have unfettered access to “the people’s house,” legislators have shied away from putting it in place.

They may be taking a giant risk. As we all know, it only takes one person, permitted or not, to create mayhem and carnage. And, any victims of, say, a mass shooting in the Capitol, could presumably sue our collective taxpayer pants off for not keeping the place secure.

But the Advisory Committee, at hearings last week and Tuesday, confined itself to the narrow issue of allowing permitted gun owners to bring their weapons to the building. And Prettner Solon reassured the fervent pro- and anti-gun adherents who turned up that the committee would take a slow boat to Decision Town. The committee has no bills before it, she told them, and no plans to write any.

Its only role is to make recommendations to the Legislature — and those, she added, won’t be appearing any time soon. 

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You have to give her props for dealing with such a hot potato at all, especially since her boss, Gov. Mark Dayton, has already said that he’s less worried about permitted gun owners than those coming in without permits. (Maybe he’s hoping that such a lenient stance will raise his National Rifle Association rating from the F he received in 2010 to a D-minus for next year’s election.)

“We are in an exploratory mode,” she said. She wanted answers to questions: What is done in other states? Does the Public Safety Commission check to see whether gun owners bringing weapons to the Capitol actually have valid permits? If a violent incident occurs, what would gun owners have the right or obligation to do? Would they be shooting people? Could the speaker of the House or a committee chairman ban gun owners during certain times or during tempestuous meetings? 

The “experts” summoned to advise the committee were stunningly reluctant to help Solon answer her questions. Mona Dohman, commissioner of Public Safety, said that gun owners would usually notify her of their plan to bring a weapon to the Capitol by email, and some sent along copies of their permits. There are currently about 840 names on the list. She claims, however, that her office has no legal authority to check whether their permits are valid. 

“Should we grant that right?” asked Prettner Solon, who, by the way, received a “D” from the NRA in 2006.

“People assume we have the authority,” said Dohman but offered no advice.

There was a report on other states, but it was incomplete, although, by my count, only eight others allow guns in their Capitol buildings. Nobody seemed sure whether gun owners were allowed to intervene in a violent incident. Yes, they have the right to defend themselves, but whether they could take offensive actions on behalf of others was unclear. 

What happens when these armed folks arrive at the Capitol?

Usually nothing. If a guard spots someone with a gun, he may ask whether the person has notified the commissioner and then check his name against the list. In the last year, said State Patrol Major Bob Meyerson, permits had been checked only about a dozen times.

 Asked how many violations had occurred, he said, “We have not had a record of violations.” Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, rated A+ by the National Rifle Association, concluded triumphantly that without violations or any incident, “there’s not anything broken here that I’m aware of.”

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I don’t know why it is that permitted gun owners are so intent on bringing their weapons to the Capitol in the first place. In testimony before the committee, they insisted that the Constitution gives them the right to protect themselves. According to Rob Doar, a firearms instructor and a member of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, taking away that right would be “turning permit-holders into second-class citizens.”

However, not one of the seven gun advocates who appeared before the Committee on Tuesday had anything to say about why they needed a gun at the Capitol.

Kevin Vic, another gun supporter, pointed out that studies by Pew Research and the Department of Justice have pointed to a dramatic diminution in crime across the nation. Ergo, people should be less worried about gun owners. The facts made me wonder why, in the face of such a huge drop in crime, gun owners felt such a dire need to be armed, even in the state Capitol. I guess the story is that they’re carrying their weapons when cruising around town and don’t want to bother taking them off when entering the building.

After the hearing, Prettner Solon told reporters that if she had her druthers, she would ban weapons from the Capitol. But she seemed eager to work out some kind of compromise. Maybe gun owners could leave their weapons at the door. Perhaps there were times when their presence could be limited.

But it seems as though the pro-gun forces managed to quell any bold moves — or even wimpy moves — to beef up security. “I’m discouraged that we haven’t come up with recommendations,” said Paymar (also F-rated by the NRA). “We’ve been silenced.”

After the hearing, he told me that he had expected “input” from the committee’s advisers, the state police, the Public Safety Commission and so on. “But they were quiet,” he said. “The gun issue has scared them.”