Legislators and others who come to the State Capitol can legally bring loaded firearms, but maybe not for long.
Beginning Wednesday, a state panel will take a fresh look at the long-standing policy that allows legally permitted gun owners to carry their weapons in just by notifying law enforcement officials.
Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, a leading proponent of stricter controls on guns, said the Capitol should be like county courthouses, which prohibit firearms. "Security experts have said over and over again that allowing firearms in that kind of environment … is not a safe situation," said Paymar, who earlier this year faced hearing rooms packed with gun owners who carried their loaded weapons in as they voiced opposition to gun registration measures.
Paymar is a member of the Advisory Committee on Capitol Security, chaired by Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon. The committee, charged with looking broadly at making the Capitol area more secure, is to hear the details of state policy and, at its meeting next week, comments from the public.
A local group, the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, which helped turn out supporters to fight universal background checks and gun control measures this past session, has called on its members to once again fill the meeting room. The Alliance argues on its website that "the usual gun-grabbers hope to restrict your right to carry at the Capitol and other St. Paul state government buildings."
In a survey of 11 Midwestern states, the Council of State Governments found that Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are the only states in the region with such an open policy on guns. Four other states — Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana — use metal detectors to detect weapons at the entrances.
Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, assistant minority leader of the House and a committee member, said discussions about limiting gun use could get wrapped into whether the building should install metal detectors.
"I think that is the worst idea ever," said Woodard, who opposes gun limits in the building. "The Capitol has to remain open in perception and reality."
The committee, which includes representatives of the courts and other state agencies, has no power beyond recommending changes to the Legislature.
Paymar is among the Legislature's strongest advocates for legislation to reduce gun violence, and lost an attempt this past session to expand background checks to private sales.
Right now any of the more than 150,000 Minnesotans who possess permits to carry loaded weapons in public can legally carry in the State Capitol by notifying police officials of their intention to do so.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, Paymar's foil as the Legislature's staunchest gun-rights advocate, regularly carries his weapon onto the House floor. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he has done so, and he estimates that five to 10 House members carry their weapons at the Capitol from time to time.
The number of notifications by gun owners who want to bring their weapons into the Capitol surged earlier this year when the DFL-controlled Legislature began discussing gun-control bills. A total of 148 notifications were filed in the first month of DFL control last winter, compared with 56 filed in all of the previous year, when the GOP controlled the Legislature.
While there have been no reported incidents with the weaponry, Paymar, who chairs the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, said the presence of loaded guns can be intimidating.
"I had colleagues, other representatives, they felt intimidated by the fact that people were bringing guns into the Capitol," Paymar said. "Some have them concealed and others didn't. When I have colleagues and staff, members of the public … who left hearings because they felt intimidated, I think that's a problem."
He suggested that, at a minimum, committee chairs should be able to keep guns out of their hearings. Currently, they do not have that authority.
"I think we're living in a different world today," Paymar said. "The carrying of firearms into the Capitol, the State Office Building, the Human Services Building, where there could be volatile issues discussed — to me, this shouldn't occur. Thankfully, we have not had an incident that I know of inside the Capitol. But I think we should be erring on the side of safety."
Woodard said he would oppose any such change.
"It's your Second Amendment right to carry firearms," he said. "People do it responsibly. A sign that says 'firearms are prohibited on the Capitol grounds' will stop no one. To me, it's a Second Amendment issue, not a public safety issue."
As to the question of intimidation, he said, the Capitol can be an intimidating place with or without guns. "There's shouting," he said.
"I've been spit upon. That's intimidation. That's democracy. People are expressing their rights. I have no problem with people talking at me, even yelling at me. … I don't think our representatives in St. Paul ought to be afraid of Minnesotans."