WASHINGTON – The record numbers of Minnesotans who hold permits to carry concealed guns could soon be able to carry their firearms in all 50 states, a move advocates said would preserve the right to self-defense wherever people travel in the country.
But law enforcement leaders in Minnesota and around the country are raising concerns that the proposal, which passed the U.S. House this month, could harm public safety and mean looser regulation of guns in states like Minnesota, with stricter permit requirements than other places.
The measure’s prospects are less certain in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans lack the 60 votes needed to prevent Democrats from blocking its progress. But, as the top Washington priority for the powerful National Rifle Association, the push to make it law is certain to reverberate in both the halls of Congress and next year’s congressional elections.
“If you are a law-abiding citizen with a permit for a concealed carry … you shouldn’t have to turn around every time you reach the bridge to Wisconsin,” said Rep. Jason Lewis, a Republican who helped vote the bill off the House floor this month. It passed 231-198, largely along party lines.
The proposal has put Republicans at odds with prosecutors around the country. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, the president of the National District Attorneys Association, said most prosecutors — particularly those overseeing large urban areas — do not support conceal carry reciprocity “because it’s a dive to the bottom” in terms of oversight of guns.
“It simply doesn’t make any public-safety sense,” Freeman said. “On this issue, states ought to decide how much they ought to ask their people to do before they have the privilege of carrying a gun in a concealed way, and I think it’s uniquely a state determination.”
The bill has divided Minnesota’s congressional delegation and put some members under political pressure. Gun-control interests are airing attack ads against Lewis, while the NRA plans to lower its score for candidates who have voted against the measure, like Rep. Tim Walz. Walz, a DFLer running for governor, has periodically sided with gun-rights groups in Congress.
The issue hasn’t neatly divided along partisan lines. Some conservatives see the measure as an infringement on states’ rights.
Absent from the debate so far has been Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, also viewed as a likely candidate for governor next year. While at least 41 attorneys general wrote to Congress urging action — 24 in support and 17 against — Swanson’s office did not offer a position on the matter, instead referring inquiries to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). That agency deferred back to Swanson’s office.
Republican attorneys general of Wisconsin and the Dakotas back the legislation. The Iowa attorney general, a Democrat, opposes it.
“Authorizing permit holders to carry across state lines will not result in an increased risk of crime,” the 24 supportive attorneys general wrote in a letter to Congress. “Concealed carry permit holders are among the most law-abiding members of society, and those states that allow for reciprocal concealed carry permits have not encountered any significant safety issues.”
Minnesota issued 71,156 carry permits last year — the highest number issued in one year since the Legislature passed the permit carry law in 2003. That is a 125 percent increase over the past five years. Today, Minnesota has 265,728 gun carry permits.
The state requires people to obtain firearms training within a year of applying for a concealed carry permit. A web page maintained by the BCA shows that Minnesota does not honor carry permits from 34 states, including Wisconsin and Iowa. In recent years, Minnesota has stopped honoring concealed carry permits from Tennessee, Ohio, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Minnesota honors Class I permits from North Dakota, meaning one held by a resident from that state who is at least 21 years old, has no conviction for an alcohol offense in the past decade, and has completed classroom instruction in gun-safety rules. For South Dakota residents, Minnesota honors only enhanced carry permits, which require completion of a handgun course.
Robert Doar, political director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, said that Minnesota has the “most restrictive” law of any of the bordering states.
He said that while gun owners should get as much training as they can afford, the ability to pay for training shouldn’t be a barrier to exercising their rights. If you are legally allowed to own a gun, he said, you should be legally allowed to carry it.
“We don’t want people who should not have firearms to have firearms, but when you pass laws restricting the right to carry, the people who aren’t supposed to own them are going to carry them anyway,” Doar said.
In a Facebook post, Doar’s group accused Walz of betraying his constituents by opposing the bill. The southern Minnesota DFLer has traditionally backed gun owners’ rights, though his own gubernatorial run has brought pressure to come out more strongly for gun control.
The NRA sent out action alerts urging people to contact Walz to vote for the bill, along with Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican who did support the legislation. The group said that reciprocity would end a confusing patchwork of state laws that make it difficult for law-abiding gun owners to travel with their firearms.
Yet Freeman pointed with some dismay to North Dakota, where there are no requirements to carry a basic gun permit. The biggest cities in the state, he noted, are Bismarck and Fargo.
“To compare them with Minneapolis and St. Paul is just ludicrous,” Freeman added. “Our people are much closer together, bar-closing time on Hennepin Avenue is much different than anything North Dakota faces, and we simply don’t want people who are violent felons, who have mental-health problems, who have no training on how to carry a gun, to be packing and walking down the street. … It’s just wrong.”
The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association also sees cause for concern.
Opponents in law enforcement said that due to differences in state-permitting procedures, officers would have no way to verify that someone with an out-of-state concealed carry permit was operating within the law. They say they would have to become legal experts on regulations in all 50 states, and are raising questions about a provision in the bill that they said would impose a threat of personal litigation against law enforcement officers trying to enforce gun laws.
Minneapolis is a member of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which has also written a letter in opposition. And St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell recently visited Washington with Ramsey County Attorney John Choi to attend an event opposing the measure.
“It’s really like an end run around states that have robust permitting standards,” Choi said. “All of these states having to honor other states sounds kind of good in theory, but in reality it’s a disaster because the differences in permitting standards are huge across the nation.”