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Gov. Mark Dayton weighed in against the idea of banning weapons in the State Capitol, which he fears would require the kind of screening system that he says has had a “chilling effect” on public involvement at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
On the day when his lieutenant governor, Yvonne Prettner Solon, convened a panel on whether the Capitol’s open policy on guns should continue, Dayton said he did not consider law-abiding gun owners the problem.
“It’s the people who would come in without a permit, with guns, with some intent [of] wrongdoing, who would concern me,” Dayton said. “The only way I know to effectively deal with that is to have metal detectors and guards.”
Installing such a system, he said, “would be very expensive.” With no incidents on record, he said, “Is the threat greater than the financial and other burden? I would say not. Obviously, one incident would tip the scales enormously.”
Minnesota’s policy of allowing any of the more than 150,000 Minnesotans who have permits to carry handguns to do so in the Capitol — once they have notified police officials of their intentions — is attracting new attention. The Advisory Committee on Capitol Security, chaired by Prettner Solon, heard arguments that gun-carrying is either an intimidating factor for employees and other visitors or an added safety measure that could prevent violent incidents.
According to Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, an opponent of the policy, Minnesota is one of only 12 or 13 states that allow carrying of guns in the Capitol, where controversial and often emotional issues are debated. “We are clearly in the minority,” he told the committee.
Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, a supporter of weapons carrying at the Capitol, replied that an open Capitol is part of the state’s tradition of direct democracy. “What makes us special in Minnesota is our access to elected officials,” he said. “We have a long and storied history of direct access.”
According to the Department of Public Safety, 832 people have notified police of their intention to carry weapons at the Capitol.
That number has spiked in the past year as the DFL-controlled Legislature began considering measures to curb gun violence.
There have been 345 notifications this year so far, compared with 56 in all of last year, when the GOP controlled the Legislature.
State police enter the names of notifiers on a list, but generally do not check to ensure that they have valid permits to carry, the committee was told. Authorities said they knew of no violent incidents, and said those attending the gun hearings this year were well-behaved.
The committee received a report from Steven Swensen, a retired U.S. marshal and private security consultant advising the committee, who said that allowing guns in the Capitol is a bad idea.
He said the possibility of accidental discharge, losing a weapon to an assailant or verbal confrontations that turn violent is not worth the risk. “There are so many controversial items being debated at the Capitol, we don’t need to bring weapons into that environment,” he said in an interview.
Dayton, who would have to sign any legislation changing the current policy, said that those who have gone through training and background checks to acquire legal permits do not pose a serious enough risk to merit metal detectors.
The State Capitol has card-keyed doors but no weapons screening, even at public entrances. Dayton said at the U.S. Capitol, where he served as a U.S. senator from 2001 to 2007, weapons screening creates delays. “There are lines … that are 15, 20 minutes just to get screened and get through,” he said. “It really has a chilling effect on public participation.”
Paymar said the fact that many gun-rights activists brought loaded weapons to hearings on gun violence intimidated legislators, staff and other citizens. He noted that some county courthouses and the state judicial center ban guns because of the volatile nature of the issues before the courts.
Woodard said gun-carrying may make the Capitol safer by deterring anyone with evil intentions. “There are good arguments that it decreases the possibility of bad things happening,” he said.
Prettner Solon said the advisory committee, which makes recommendations to the Legislature each year, must deal with the issue. “Newtown didn’t know or expect that they were going to have a problem either,” she said, referring to the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December. “We need to be prepared in some way. We can’t just keep pushing it aside.”
The committee will resume the discussion and hear public comments the subject Tuesday.