GUNS WIN! Shoot-Out at the Capitol Corral

Feb 08

A family from Burnsville attended a rally at the State Capitol to oppose upcoming hearings on gun control legislation.
All photos by nick coleman

Update on The UpTake: Today, 2-14-13, I ask how Minnesota is supposed to try to have a real discussion about guns when the discussion room is FULL of guns. Please see:

                                      — Nick Coleman


What a week for guns!

Minnesota was awash in gun talk this week, starting with President Barack Obama’s visit to Minneapolis to promote his efforts to reduce gun violence, continuing through three days of unproductive hearings on gun control measures in the State Capitol — hearings dominated by grim-faced gun owners — and including the sentencing of a 17-year-old for last year’s drive-by murder of a Minneapolis  5-year-old.  And yet, after all of that, I think it is important to say:

Very little has changed.

The conversation at the Capitol, where St. Paul DFLer Michael Paymar bent over backwards to keep a civil tone during hearings on several pieces of gun control legislation held by his House Public Safety Committee, had a feeling of unreality to it. It was political theater of the most unsatisfying kind. Gun control proponents wrung their hands and spoke earnestly about the need to prevent Sandy Hook school massacres in Minnesota. Opponents sat with arms crossed, eyes steely, I-Dare-You looks on their faces, an amazing number of which were covered by unkempt beards.

They  looked like the kind of guys who ride Harleys, butcher their own deer and pull catfish out of holes for sport. And who carry hog legs strapped to their hips. In fact, a lot of the hundreds of gun owners who packed the hearings, corridors  and overflow rooms every day were carrying, legally, weapons in the Capitol, which has become the most vulnerable public building in the state.

To enter many county courthouses in Minnesota, visitors have to pass through metal detectors. If you want to get into the Wisconsin or Iowa Capitols, you must do the same. But Minnesota, hewing to the lovely but quaint notion that we should maintain free and open access to “the people’s building,” does not make visitors go through a security check of any kind, even when they are headed to a contentious hearing on gun control.  This means the Minnesota Capitol is an accident waiting to happen. The minute there is a shooting, of course, the rules will be changed and metal detectors will be installed so that it never happens again. But it will be too late for whoever gets shot in the first place. Maybe they will name the security stations for the victims.

State Patrol Lt. Don Marose holds the Book of Guns, a list of more than 600 Minnesotans who have claimed a legal right to carry weapons in the Minnesota Capitol and its complex.

More than 600 people have their names in a book kept by the State Patrol at the Capitol, a book that most Minnesotans know nothing about. Those 600 people — including me — possess permits to carry firearms in public and have registered with the Commissioner of Public Safety as persons who visit the Capitol complex and have asserted their right to carry a weapon into the Capitol and 16 associated state  buildings. It’s an arcane and half-crazy system, familiar only to gun owners who want to assert a right to carry their iron wherever they damn well please.

In my case — I took a “license-to-carry” training course and obtained my permit in 2006 for a column I wrote for a former newspaper in Minneapolis — I just wanted to go through the hoops to see what it took to get my name in the Minnesota Book of Capitol Gunslingers. The answer: Not much.

I sent a copy of my permit, my ID and a statement of my intent by registered mail to the Commissioner of Public Safety. My return receipt, showing that the letter had been received, is the only proof required that I am fit to carry in the Capitol. I have no card or permit showing that I can do so, but I have confirmed, by checking with the State Patrol Security office in the Capitol, that my name is in the book, along with more than 600 other citizens.

I have no intention of carrying a loaded weapon into the Capitol, but if other people claim that right, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t. I also accept that it’s not the people who openly assert their right to carry a weapon who pose the greatest threat. It is the people who carry guns without license or official knowledge who should scare us. But little effort is being made to protect the Capitol, its political leaders or its workers from a potential attack.

The Minnesota Capitol’s Little Book of Guns

Something called the Advisory Committee on Capitol Area Security, chaired by Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, met last month and approved a proposal to ask the Legislature to increase the number of state troopers assigned to the Capitol complex from 2 to 12 and require at least one trooper be assigned to the 140-acre area at all times.

The committee is a fig leaf: If and when someone is shot inside the Capitol, it will be ready with plans to add weapons-screening stations and to control access to the complex.  Just not before someone is shot. The committee pointedly declined to change the 600-guns-and-growing procedures for carrying weapons in the Capitol. When Joe Olson, the Hamline Law professor and fierce gun-control opponent was asked if he objected to any of the committee’s actions or its proposed legislation, he said neither he nor the gun group he heads, The Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, had any problem with the proposals.

C’mon, Minnesota. If gun owners have no problem with a gun safety measure, it is not much of a gun safety measure.

The Minnesota Capitol remains wide open, a “people’s building” crossing its fingers in a time of gun violence..

Gun owners began lining up in the Capitol corridor at 4 p.m. for a 6 p.m. hearing on gun control legislation last week, some of them carrying weapons. Above: Noel Wareham, Mounds View (in beard and “Don’t Tread on Me” cap), Hamilton Ayerhart, Rochester, and Martin Wade, North Branch. Wade was carrying a “five-inch 1911″ — a .45-caliber pistol of the kind issued to military officers since 1911. “I carry it wherever I go,” said Wade.

But if gun owners don’t object to the toothless talk about improving Capitol security, they sure did object to almost all of the Obama-like legislative proposals that came before Paymar’s committee. Although proponents of gun control put on a valiant effort, the hearings — and the atmosphere — were dominated by the Gun Carrying Community. No proposals actually came up for a vote. The hearings, in fact, seemed to be intended more as an exercise in Socratic dialog than in crafting legislation

The colloquial way to describe it: They were throwing stuff at the wall to see what — if anything — might stick.

Not much did.

Thursday’s morning hearing seemed particularly hapless: State Rep. Erik Simonson, a DFLer from Duluth, took a well-intentioned swing at introducing a bill that would require permits in order to purchase bullet-proof vests. The purpose, he said, was to make sure bad guys don’t get to wear protection while carrying out crimes. The proposal seemed to die almost as fast as Simonson presented it, cut to ribbons by opponents, including committee member Tony Cornish, the NRA-tie wearing, tough-talking, shoot-from-the-hip Republican police chief whose bill allowing teachers to carry guns  — a wag called it “the crossfire in the school corridor bill” — may be one the most likely to reach the House floor.

Cornish asked why women who are victims of domestic abuse should have to get a permit — and pay up to $100 for it — to protect themselves from a dangerous ex-partner. Other questions followed: What about my grandfather’s World War I helmet that I have on my shelf? What if I’m in the National Guard and need a vest for training? Why should a purely defensive instrument be treated like a dangerous tool, and why should law-abiding citizens be denied access to protection against the very violence these hearings were called to discuss?

“This bill should be withdrawn, thrown away and stomped on and never seen again,” declared Andrew Rothman, vice-president of the gun owner’s civil rights alliance. The grim-faced crowd in the hearing room nodded in approval. Simonson retreated under the barrage, admitting his bill was unlikely to get out of committee.

“We all know this may not make it to the House floor,” he conceded. But, he continued, the purpose of “the majority of the bills we’re talking about this week is to generate conversation. Let’s work together and see if we can come up with something reasonable.”

Really?! That’s all? The purpose of a week of talking about guns was to generate a conversation? And not do anything?


Kabuki theater, my old boss Jack Coffman would have said back when he covered the Capitol: Sound and fury signifying nothing, a shadow play meant to look like something was being done. When, in fact, it wasn’t.

If you need it put more bluntly: The debate over gun control came to the Minnesota Capitol this week.

Guns won.

Sign at Bill’s Gun Shop and Range in Robbinsdale, MN, mocking President Barack Obama’s 2008 comments about conservative voters and gun owners.