Capitol Gun Safety Discussion Begins, Ends In Confusion, Disagreement. Is Paymar Out?

Story for The UpTake by Kathryn Nelson and Nick Coleman

The Minnesota State Patrol does not always verify that gun owners have valid permits to carry handguns before they are added to a list of gun owners allowed to carry weapons inside the Minnesota Capitol and its complex.

That surprising admission was made Wednesday at a tense meeting of the advisory committee on Minnesota Capitol Security that exposed a number of areas of confusion in the state’s gun permitting laws and how they are interpreted at the Capitol and its 14-acre complex of associated buildings.

Testimony by State Patrol Maj. Bob Meyerson caused a number of startled looks on the six-member task force, which is headed by Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon. Meyerson told the panel that gun owners are required to have a Minnesota Permit to Carry as well as permission from the Commissioner of Public Safety in order to bring their handguns into the State Capitol. But, he said, gun owners are not required to produce a copy of their permit for verification before being placed on the list of Capitol visitors allowed to carry firearms. Gun owners only need to contact the commissioner for permission, which is most commonly given through an email or phone call. After stating that they have a current gun permit, the owner’s name is placed on the Capitol carrying list, Meyerson said.

“There’s no other validation.”

The names of 832 gun owners currently are kept on a list maintained by the State Patrol in its Capitol office. Meyerson said that he wasn’t sure if the list was updated with current information, potentially allowing owners with expired license to stay on the list for an indefinite amount of time.

“Once they’re on that list, they’re on it,” added Capt. Shelly Schrofer.

Continuing discussion on gun rights at the Capitol produced further confusion about the wording and meaning of state gun laws, and produced audible agitation in the crowd. The hearing began in confusion when gun-safety advocate Rep. Michael Paymar showed up. Paymar is the chair of the House Public Safety Committee that conducted weeks of contentious gun hearings last winter — attended by hundreds of gun owners who were openly carrying their weapons. He has been a member of the security task force but his status was uncertain when he showed up for the meeting only to find that another House Democrat, Rep. Carolyn Laine, of Columbia Heights, believed that she had been appointed to replace Paymar by House Speaker Paul Thissen, a Democrat. Laine, who seemed to be embarrassed by the snafu, quickly left, but others raised questions throughout the meeting as to whether Paymar, a St. Paul DFLer who has been something of a lightning rod to gun owners, was still on the committee.

Paymar said he was uncertain as to his status while gun-safety advocates openly speculated that Thissen might consider the liberal DFLer’s leadership on the gun issue to be a liability in 2014, an election year. Although his name still appeared on a the six-person list of members released later Wednesday by the Department of Public Safety, Paymar was still waiting for official word Wednesday night.

(Update: Paymar informed supporters Thursday that he believes he still is on the Capitol Security task force).

It was another bizarre moment in a series of awkward dealings between Paymar and the DFL Speaker.
Paymar presided over the passage from his committee of a much watered-down gun-safety bill last March with the public understanding that the bill would be debated on the House floor and be up for a wide-ranging discussion on tightening Minnesota gun laws in the wake of last December’s school shooting in Newton, Conn.

Thissen, however, later reneged on the deal and refused to let the bill come up for a House vote.

Adding to yesterday’s confusion, Gov. Mark Dayton, who has remained mostly silent on the gun safety issue, seemed to pull the rug out from under Paymar and other gun-safety proponents — including his lieutenant governor — with off-the-cuff comments to the press made Wednesday morning. Just as the task force was sitting down to discuss whether the promiscuous spread of guns in state government buildings posed a hazard to lawmakers, state employees and members of the pubic, Dayton pooh-poohed the issue:

He isn’t worried about gun owners with permission to carry in the Capitol, he said. Rather, he worries more about other people with guns coming to the Capitol “with malicious intent.” He said he also was cool towards to idea of installing metal detectors or other security systems of the kind installed at many county office and court buildings.

“It would be very expensive,” Dayton said. “Is the threat greater than the financial or other burden? At this point, I would say not. Obviously any one incident would tip the scales enormously.”

The governor’s view seemed to suggest to some that he will support the installation of metal detectors after someone is killed, an approach that does not comfort gun-safety advocates who felt intimidated by the presence of gun-carrying opponents last winter. A number of gun owners also showed up for Wednesday’s hearing.

Wearing matching maroon-and-gold T-shirts, members of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance voiced their concerns about the potential tightening of carrying guns laws at the Capitol.

Disagreeing with the call for additional security restrictions, public commenter Matt Erickson said, “true liberty means personal responsibility” and that “(The Capitol) should stay as open as it is. It’s an inspiration to other Capitols around the nation.”

Other gun enthusiasts mirrored Erickson’s sentiments, stating that as gun owners, they were responsible for their own safety and that a “few officers” were not enough to keep them or other unarmed visitors safe.

Linda Winsor, one of two public witnesses who advocated for stricter gun laws at the State Capitol, said that she was disappointed by Wednesday’s meeting and thought her perspective was not well represented, particularly given the number of members of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance.

“I just feel so strongly on how intimidating it is to discuss this issue when people are carrying guns,” she said. “The only way to have democracy and action is when people feel safe.”

Winsor said she has attended most of the security discussions at the Capitol and that is was common for gun-control advocates to feel intimidated by the large pro-gun crowd. Many of her fellow advocates are now too nervous to voice their opinions or attend such public forums, she said.

Bryan Strawser, an activist for the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, disagreed, stating there were no reports of intimidation or violent incidents during last year’s gun debates. Attending most of the discussions on gun laws at the Capitol, Stawser said that he was concerned licensed gun owners would have their rights limited in the future.

“Law abiding citizens are not the issue,” Strawser said.

Wearing a button stating, “Minnesotans Against Being Shot,” Gary Thompson said you can “see and feel” the intimidation from pro-gun enthusiasts. “You can’t have a reasonable discussion with someone packing heat,” he said.

Ending the comments, Paymar said there should be a continuing deep and critical discussion of this issue with a “broader view of public safety.” Concluding, he added, “I wish we could find some common ground.”

The next Advisory Committee on Capitol Area Security is scheduled for August 20.

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