Panel divided over guns at Capitol

A supporter of gun rights talked with a Capitol Security officer before Wednesday’s hearing (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)

A committee looking at security at the state Capitol held a discussion today about whether people should be allowed to carry guns at the public building.

Right now people with handgun permits can carry guns at the Capitol, but only if they notify Capitol Security in advance.  Rep. Michael Paymer, DFL-St. Paul, said the Advisory Committee on Capitol Security should have a deep discussion about whether guns should be allowed in the Capitol complex.

“We’re responsible for the school children that come into this building,” Paymar said. “We’re responsible for the citizens that come and testify before us whether it’s at the State Office Building or at this Capitol. We’re responsible for our staff.”

A lot of the discussion focused on the 832 people who have notified the Commissioner of Public Safety that they intend to visit the Capitol with a firearm. Several members of the committee expressed surprise that Capitol Security accepts the requests but doesn’t check to see whether the handgun permits are valid.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said there’s no problem with the current system. She said the committee should focus less on people who are licensed to carry firearms and more on those who don’t have permits.

“Let’s make sure we have a full conversation about what happens when you get a permit and keep our focus on the people who will come here to do harm and won’t have bothered to go through any process, won’t have notified anyone, won’t have legally acquired a firearm,” Benson said. “They’re a greater risk to this body than anyone who has gone through the legal process.”

Security at the Capitol has become a delicate balancing act for lawmakers who want to ensure that the public has free and open access to petition their government but who also worry that there aren’t enough safety measures in place to protect the public. A 2009 report by the Legislative Auditor said the Capitol has significant security vulnerabilities. The Legislature has taken some steps to strengthen security since then, but lawmakers say more needs to be done.

Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, who chairs the committee, said changes may have to be made, given that lawmakers often work on controversial issues.

“We have a hotbed here at the Capitol, and I think we have to not pretend it doesn’t exist,” Solon said. “I have had threats on my life and I believe others have too. I’ve had people say ‘I can follow you around. I can get you. I can carry a gun.’”

The committee hearing comes a few months after the Legislature held hearings on gun control legislation. The bills didn’t go anywhere mostly because gun rights groups rallied to defeat them. Members of the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance packed today’s hearing as well.

Michael Gerster, who represents the Oakdale Gun Club, told the committee that banning guns won’t reduce gun violence. He said recent shootings occurred at schools and theaters that had gun bans in place.

“Whenever we’ve had problems around the country, it’s always been in a gun free zone,” Gerster said.

But others encouraged the committee to think about the broader picture. Two people testified that they felt vulnerable attending recent gun hearings earlier this year.

“I was one of those people who attended nearly all of the hearings last winter,” Linda Winsor of St. Paul said. “I will tell you that people like me who don’t carry firearms, who want to come up and participate in democracy in our Capitol, were intimidated.”

The committee is expected to come up with recommendations in the next few months. The Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton would need to approve any new security measures.

Dayton said he doesn’t feel an urgency to restrict permit holders from carrying guns at the Capitol.

“What I would worry about is not the people who have permits,” Dayton said. “It’s the people who would come in without a permit with guns with some intent of wrongdoing that concerns me.”

Dayton said it would be extremely expensive to ensure that no one with a weapon enters the Capitol. He also said having security lines with metal detectors would have a chilling effect on public participation at the Capitol.