Opinion: Local governments merit protection under gun laws

Published 10:33 am Friday, January 10, 2014

To take a gun into the Minnesota Capitol, state law requires a state carry permit and advance notice to the public safety commissioner of one’s plans to bring a firearm on Capitol grounds.

But city councils and county boards don’t share that same very limited protection. Under current gun permit laws, local units of government may not ban or restrict the possession of legally permitted firearms. That should change, at least to make state law consistent about how guns are handled when it comes to state and local lawmaking bodies.

The potential for tensions and problems exists whenever sensitive policy decisions are made, whether it is a state hearing on gun control, a county board vote on land use or a city council’s choice to impose eminent domain. Public employees and elected officials make decisions that affect peoples’ lives and livelihoods — decisions that can be controversial and contentious.

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And though shootings occur very rarely at city or county buildings, they have happened. That’s why local units of government should have the same exception written into law that the State Capitol does. And as we have argued previously, those local bodies should also take pragmatic steps that stop short of a politically unrealistic ban but reduce the risk of a tragedy.

Bag checks — like those conducted at professional sports stadiums — and use of metal detectors merit consideration by lawmaking bodies. Those practices could be used at certain times or places in the Capitol or other public places when controversial topics are on the agenda. They could help security personnel confirm that armed attendees are lawfully carrying a firearm and deter those who might pose a greater public safety risk.

Also, statutory changes should be considered that would clarify security officers’ authority to verify the permits of gun owners and that they have provided advance notice.

A recent Star Tribune news story pointed out that some local governments find ways to ban guns anyway — even though in some cases they appear to violate state statutes. Municipalities including Crystal and Virginia, for example, prohibit dangerous weapons in city buildings and on city property. They haven’t had any problems with those rules to date, but they could be challenged at some point. St. Paul has a ban at City Hall (as well as metal detectors), but that is because a district courthouse is under the same roof. State law allows courthouses, schools, and private businesses and property owners to ban firearms from their premises.

Other cities have found ways around the law by defining carrying a gun as prohibited “conduct’’— like shouting or inappropriate applause. In a blog post to its members, the Minnesota League of Cities pointed out that cities may regulate the discharge of firearms and that, like St. Paul, guns can be banned in city halls that are attached to or part of a courthouse.

Cities and counties should not be forced to break the law or tie themselves in legal knots to be proactive about protecting public employees and officials.

While the League of Cities does not oppose permit-to-carry laws, it has addressed the issue of carrying firearms on city property for cities in its 2014 list of policy issues. It points out that the law’s “treatment of different kinds of properties have caused confusion about how the law applies to multiuse facilities. … The recent shooting in the Morrison County Government Center also shows the harm that can result from preventing local control of their own facilities.” Therefore, the league recommends an amendment to the permit-to-carry law that would allow cities to prohibit handguns in city-owned facilities.

The issue of guns in public buildings led to several emotional hearings at the Capitol last session. Ultimately, no changes were made. In November, a six-member panel charged with providing recommendations on Capitol security, led by Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, deadlocked on a proposal that would have expanded the Capitol’s firearms restrictions.

Still, legislators should keep trying for reasonable modifications to the law that balance the safety of public officials and workers with the rights of gun owners.