During a forum for Republican candidates for governor in Mankato in early November, state Sen. Paul Gazelka said he brings a gun to the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul.
“Frankly, I wish I didn’t have to carry at the Capitol,” said Gazelka, who stepped down as Senate Majority Leader earlier this year to run for governor. “But the fact is I’ve had death threats.”
Some around the Legislature appeared surprised that Gazelka carries a weapon at the Capitol, and his comments also renewed a debate over the safety and necessity of firearms — at least those not held by law enforcement — at the Legislature.
Gazelka is not the only lawmaker carrying a gun. The practice does not appear to be widespread, but legislative officials estimate at least a handful of other elected officials bring firearms to the Capitol.
And while lawmakers and the general public once had to notify the state Department of Public Safety when they had a gun at the Capitol, the Legislature got rid of that requirement several years ago. Today, anyone with a state permit to carry can have a handgun on the Capitol complex, said Lt. Gordon Shank, a spokesman for the Minnesota State Patrol. Shank said there is no requirement that the gun be concealed when carried.
There is one exception: guns aren’t allowed in the judicial building, Shank said.
But lawmakers and the general public can bring pistols elsewhere on Capitol grounds. Sven Lindquist, the Senate’s Sergeant at Arms, said legislators can have guns on the Senate floor. Lawmakers could adopt a rule to block carrying in the chamber, but said he wouldn’t recommend it currently because it would be logistically difficult to check for guns and store them if people have them. The Senate, at this point, “is not in a position to take those steps,” Lindquist said.
In 2015, legislators modified state law to eliminate a requirement that people with permits to carry guns must notify the state’s Public Safety commissioner when they have a sidearm at the Capitol. The new law says the permit itself “constitutes notification of the commissioner of public safety.”
Republicans controlled the House at the time, and Democrats controlled the Senate, though the Senate majority leader was Sen. Tom Bakk, who was a DFLer but now is an independent. Mark Dayton was governor.
A spokesman for Minnesota House Republicans said only that “several” House GOPers carry at the Capitol, but didn’t have a precise count. One of the Republicans who carries is Rep. Peggy Bennett, an Albert Lea Republican first elected in 2014.
Bennett, a retired teacher, said she first got a firearm permit in 2012 but didn’t conceal and carry the gun around Albert Lea. After getting elected, she started carrying the handgun at the Legislature.
Bennett said there are a few reasons why she does so. “I feel like as a woman, especially in situations where you get mugged or you could have some angry people coming at you or whatever, it is a great equalizer,” Bennett said.
Bennett said she views the gun as a “good backup” in an increasingly volatile political climate, and even though she thinks Capitol security does a “wonderful job,” she said “they can’t be everywhere at all times.”
Public figures can be targets, Bennett said, but she also said she wants the gun as protection while walking around outside the Capitol complex, such as walking to her car or the light rail station.
Bennett said she has never taken her gun out at the Capitol. She does bring it with her around the complex, including to the House floor, because she said it wouldn’t be responsible to leave it in her office where someone else could access it. “It gives me more peace of mind that I’m able to protect myself if I need to,” Bennett said.
A spokesman for Minnesota House Democrats said he wasn’t aware of any DFL representatives who carry a gun at the Capitol.
Rep. Mike Sundin, a Democrat from Esko, said that he had a loaded firearm within arms reach at his house, something he has made a practice of as the “political climate has changed considerably in the last couple of years.”
“I had people shouting outside my house,” he said. “I just thought prudent I could deflect some problems should they arise in my home.”
Still, Sundin said he doesn’t think lawmakers need to carry in St. Paul. “As far as firearms in the Capitol, in the complex itself, I think it’s turned into more of a stunt by people who voice their support for the Second Amendment preservation rather than actual protection,” Sundin said. “We have skilled professionals with firearms on the grounds, and they are trained and I am fully confident of their capabilities as far as protecting us from any unforeseen dangers.”
Sundin said he thought it was “embarrassing” any legislative leader would bring this up, though he said lawmakers shouldn’t consider relaxing or tightening gun rules at the Capitol because they should be talking about other issues like how to handle a state budget surplus.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, a Golden Valley Democrat who serves on an advisory committee dedicated to Capitol safety, said he would prefer to limit guns at the Capitol but said a law change would need support in the Republican-led Senate so he and other Democrats haven’t seriously pursued it. Winkler also noted that the Capitol doesn’t have metal detectors, which is “unusual for major public buildings.”
Winkler said he believed the requirement to notify DPS when carrying a gun was not being followed and the state had no means of enforcing it and said the Legislature has never had a problem with lawmakers or others having guns at the Capitol. Still, he said there’s “no reason to assume that we never will, especially with the far right increasingly adopting violent rhetoric.”
“Members of the House and Senate may have a right to carry a weapon at the Capitol but it isn’t an answer for our security needs,” Winkler said. “We would be much better off making sure that we’re actually adequately staffing, protecting and securing the buildings for everybody, rather than making sure that individual representatives or senators could carry.”
For the last year, lawmakers and state officials have debated permanent security measures at the Capitol.
In the Senate, a DFL spokesman said no Democratic senators carry at the Capitol. A Senate Republican spokeswoman said she didn’t have an estimate of how many other GOPers besides Gazelka have guns at the Capitol. None in the current caucus leadership wanted to say whether they had them, she said, but also said Gazelka was not alone in having firearms. Some also have decorative firearms in offices, but the guns are disabled.
For his part, Gazelka pointed to a specific incident as at least one reason he carries a gun. On June 19, 2020, soon after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, a group of protesters forced their way into the Minnesota Senate building while promoting new police reforms. They were removed by the Minnesota State Patrol.
“The fact is they broke into the Senate building, Black Lives Matter, during the riot,” Gazelka said at the governor’s forum in Mankato. “I felt more comfortable with the fact that I and a number of folks carried.”