A gun owners advocacy group went to court Tuesday on behalf of a Twin Cities preacher and a longtime firearms advocate in hopes of forcing the Minnesota State Fair to allow permit-holding visitors onto its grounds while armed.

The Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus has sued Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, whose agency is newly providing law enforcement to the 2021 fair, and the State Agricultural Society, which was organized as a public corporation by the Legislature in 1860 and puts on the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

At a news conference on Tuesday, the plaintiffs and representatives from the Gun Owners Caucus said their case doesn't argue whether it's a good or bad idea to carry a gun at the State Fair. Rather, they want to ensure that all permitted carriers have the opportunity to lawfully carry their firearms at the public, state-sponsored event.

"As an arm of state government, the Minnesota State Agricultural Society is preempted by multiple state statutes from prohibiting the lawful carry of firearms on the State Fairgrounds or during the Minnesota State Fair," said Bryan Strawser, caucus chairman.

Fletcher said he was surprised to be named as a defendant, given that his personnel are only responsible for enforcement inside the 11 gates to the fair, which runs from Aug. 26 to Sept. 6.

"Until today, we didn't anticipate this would be an issue," said the sheriff, who declined to comment on whether he's comfortable with fair visitors bringing in guns and was not ready to say how he will direct his deputies to enforce any ban should they see an armed visitor.

As for the State Patrol's role at the fair, Department of Public Safety spokesman Bruce Gordon said the agency will be "at the gates for a security presence [and] not in charge, nor do we have any jurisdiction over a decision about whether or not guns are allowed on State Fair property."

Citing the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment protecting the right to bear arms, the suit says the Rev. Tim Christopher, of Anoka, and Gun Owners Caucus member Sarah Cade Hauptman, of Maplewood, "wish to exercise their fundamental, constitutionally and statutorily protected right to carry loaded, operable handguns on their person, at the annual Minnesota State Fair, for lawful purposes including immediate self-defense.

"But they cannot because of the laws, regulations, policies, practices, and customs that [the] defendants have been enforcing and continue to actively enforce today."

The 56-year-old Christopher, who preaches and does mission outreach in north Minneapolis, is a regular fair attendee with his family who "has carried his pistol more or less daily for the past eight years [and] has seen a rise in crime, and for the work he does … believes it's important to have a way to protect [himself]," according to the suit.

Hauptman, 39, a permit-to-carry holder starting in 2013, has been "a responsibly armed citizen ever since [who] wishes to carry at the State Fair for the purposes of self-defense," the suit explains.

Hauptman and Christopher said Tuesday that although they have great faith in law enforcement, both said they feel more at ease knowing that they have the ability to protect themselves even when police aren't around.

As a woman with arthritis, Hauptman said, she feels justified in carrying a firearm for self-defense.

Christopher said he often feels like a "sitting duck" without his gun and doesn't walk down streets like Lyndale and Broadway avenues without it. When asked whether he felt it was fair to compare the streets of north Minneapolis and Uptown to the fairgrounds, he didn't hesitate before answering, "Yes." Crime can happen anywhere, he said, even in "safe neighborhoods" like the one near the fairgrounds. Christopher and his wife always take their grandson to the fair, and he wants to know he can protect himself and his loved ones from potential harm should the need arise.

The fair's website lists "weapons or objects that appear to be weapons" among a host of prohibited items. There will be walk-through metal detectors at all gates, and visitors have seen signs in past years at entry points reminding them that the "Minnesota State Fair bans guns in these premises."

However, the lawsuit contends, the fair lacks a written policy on regulating guns at the fairgrounds, and the notice on its website is no substitute for its statutory requirement to file such a prohibition with the secretary of the State Agricultural Society.

The suit is asking the Ramsey County District Court to step in and require the fair to allow entry to permit-holding visitors and their weapons. It also calls on the State Agricultural Society to codify a policy on weapons possession, provide the relevant training to fair workers and pay the plaintiffs' attorney fees and other related expenses in bringing the legal action.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

Maya Miller • 612-673-7086