The animosity was unmistakable between the gun-rights and gun-control advocates who came to St. Paul on Tuesday to weigh in on whether citizens with permits to carry firearms should be allowed to continue bringing them into the State Capitol.
Even after Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, who chaired the advisory panel discussion on Capitol security, told participants to keep the discussion constructive, it didn’t take long for those testifying to launch character attacks.
Within just a few minutes, a man in favor of a Capitol gun ban had called state Rep. Tony Cornish, who sat nearby with the gun-rights crowd, a “bully.” An opponent of a ban soon returned the disfavor, saying “professional help” was available for those expressing “feelings” of intimidation when they saw people carrying weapons at the Capitol.
The disrespectful exchanges reflected poorly on both sides. More disturbingly, the ill will yielded nothing but shopworn ideological debate over gun control. This prevented a more productive exploration of the common ground the two sides share — genuine concern about the safety of those who visit or work at the Capitol complex — that could have yielded practical, politically feasible measures to heighten security.
Tuesday’s hearing should not have been an either-or discussion about guns at the Capitol. Instead, there should have been shared acknowledgment that improving public safety at the seat of Minnesota’s state government is a never-ending responsibility as times, issues and motivations and weapons change.
Then, the discussion should have quickly focused on more pragmatic steps that stop short of a politically unrealistic ban but nevertheless would reduce the risk of a tragedy that is all too common in this era: a mass shooting in a public gathering place.
Measures that merit serious consideration include bag checks — like those that many professional sports fans already endure — and the use of metal detectors to check for weapons at certain times or places in the Capitol complex. Logical locations: entrances to the House and Senate public galleries or entrances to hearing rooms when contentious issues are weighed.
These checks wouldn’t have to bar firearms carried by properly permitted gun owners to significantly improve security at venues where emotions run high. But such searches would increase the chance that the Capitol’s security officers would find someone who is not lawfully carrying a firearm and, therefore, poses a higher safety risk. The need to catch these bad actors is something both gun-control and gun-rights activists can agree on.
Strong consideration also should be given to statutory changes that would clearly give public safety officials the authority to check whether gun owners who provide advance notice about their intent to carry at the Capitol do in fact have a valid permit.
Prettner Solon, to her credit, pleaded for such an approach as she led the discussion Tuesday, even though she later said she leans toward stronger gun limits at the Capitol. Gov. Mark Dayton has weighed in against a ban, but neglected to issue a similar high-profile call for other safety measures. He now needs to follow his lieutenant governor’s lead in pushing for them.
Dayton’s stance had a regrettable side effect. Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman, a political appointee, and other law enforcement authorities at the hearing appeared reluctant to forcefully say what should be done, lest they contradict the governor. The public is best served by their professional law enforcement judgment, not their political calculations.
Limited but strategic bag checks in particular would strike a reasonable balance between public safety, Second Amendment interests and the desire for openness at the Capitol. Future hearings should focus on this practical compromise and explore other similar measures.
Arguments that nothing needs to done since there hasn’t been a tragedy also need to be dispensed with. A 2009 report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor warned that the important decisions and work done at the Capitol complex bring “serious security risks.” It also found that the Capitol complex has “serious security vulnerabilities.’’
Although there’s no complete compilation of state capitols that allow firearms, a 2009 survey to which 42 states responded found that 11 allowed firearms.
A KinderCare bus parked Tuesday near the Capitol’s front steps was a reminder of the high stakes of this discussion. Thousands of kids make educational trips to this historic building annually. Practical measures need to be taken now to make sure they stay out of harm’s way.