A man openly wearing a loaded Glock on his hip stood a few feet from a legislative committee that was discussing whether civilians should carry guns to volatile meetings at the Capitol.
At a witness table nearby, another man testified how his father died at the hands of an assailant who, like 150,000 other Minnesotans, was legally allowed to carry his loaded weapon in public places.
Minnesota's emotional battle over gun violence came home to the "People's House" on Tuesday.
"The Capitol is a place for a free-flowing exchange of opinions and ideas — not bullets," said Sami Rahamim, whose father and six others died when an employee who had just been fired pulled out his Glock at Accent Signage in Minneapolis last September and started shooting. Rahamim urged a state panel to recommend a ban to gun-carrying at the Capitol both as a safety measure and to prevent intimidation.
Kris Kranz, who brought his .40-caliber Glock to the hearing loaded with 15 rounds, said he feels safer with his own weapon. "You have to be your own hero on your own white horse," Kranz said, adding that he should retain that right.
In a room crowded with those waiting to testify, Kranz leaned against a pillar in Room 15 of the Capitol in such a way that his gun was clearly visible to members of the Advisory Committee on Capitol Security, which is looking at ways to make the Capitol area safer. Other gun-rights advocates also wore holstered guns on their hips.
The sanctity of the Capitol itself, a place that prides itself on intense debate without physical violence, was the committee's topic.
The committee was told that Minnesota is definitely in the minority among states, both in allowing citizens to bring loaded weapons into the museum-quality Capitol building, and in having no weapons screening at any of its entrances.
Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, who chairs the advisory panel, said she personally disagrees with the open policy. She believes some kind of compromise — such as partial bans for volatile events, or barring guns in certain areas of the building — may be appropriate.
"We are an anomaly among other states," Prettner Solon said. "I do not want to be in a position where we have an incident at the Capitol and we have not thoroughly looked at the situation to determine whether we are providing for the safety of the public." She added that it is her "tendency" to want to recommend a ban on gun-carrying in the building.
"That would be my knee-jerk reaction, because I don't feel a need to have guns around me," she added. "I like the fact that we have troopers here who do have guns, and are here to protect us."
Minnesota's policy allows permit-holders to carry their weapons into the Capitol merely by notifying public safety officials. State police said they do not check to see if people on the notification list actually have permits or if the permits have been revoked. They said they occasionally check permits when they see weapons and have had no problems with the policy.
As of noon Tuesday, 841 people had notified the state of their intention to bring their guns to the Capitol.
Last week, Gov. Mark Dayton said he had no fears of permit-holders bringing their guns to the Capitol, but worries about those without permits who may be intent on doing harm.
Supporters of the current policy, including Kevin Vick, a Lakeville firearms dealer, said that in his opinion, permit-holders are more law-abiding than most Minnesotans. "There is no rational fear driving the few that feel intimidated and potentially threatened by citizens who legally own firearms," Vick told the panel. "Permit-holders are required to regularly recertify and pass background checks." Permit-holders must reapply every five years and provide proof of weapons training.
On Sept. 27, 2012, Rahamim's father and five Accent Signage co-workers were shot to death by Andrew Engeldinger, who had just been told he was losing his job. After Engeldinger shot his former boss and co-workers, he took his own life. Rahamim said the assailant had passed the checks and training to obtain a permit to carry. Relying on an "imperfect background check" to allow guns into the Capitol "doesn't hold water," Rahamim said.
"An angry, disturbed man who legally carried a CCW permit did not like that he was being fired, so he used his gun to murder my father and five other men," Rahamim said. "CCW" stands for "carrying a concealed weapon."
Rights or intimidation?
The issue of intimidation was raised by several witnesses opposed to guns in the Capitol, who said weapons at hearings discussing gun violence sends a strong message.
"It is unreasonable for gun-violence victims who are already traumatized to face loaded guns when testifying about their experience," said Gary Thompson of St. Paul, who attended this year's legislative hearings. Anna Dick Gambucci of St. Paul said she felt intimidated sitting in crowded committee rooms dominated by those supporting gun-rights. Ann Mongoven of St. Paul said she felt heckling and gun-carrying were used this year "with the intent of creating a climate of intimidation."
"Allowing people with loaded guns in the Capitol doesn't advance the democratic process — it shuts it down," Mongroven said.
An official of the National Rifle Association, which has strong support from rural and suburban legislators, appeared at the hearing to oppose limits on guns at the Capitol, calling it an "affront to law-abiding gun owners." Rob Doar of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance said banning guns would make the Capitol less safe.
"Gun-free zones offer a target-rich and low-risk environment for people who want to commit mass harm," Doar said. Changing the policy, he said, would be "turning permit-holders into second-class citizens by violating their rights."
Prettner Solon said the panel will recommend changes to the Legislature next year, but it is unclear whether it will recommend a change in gun policy at the Capitol.