The Minnesota Legislature’s leading proponent of tougher gun-safety measures, Rep. Michael Paymar, announced last week that he won’t run for re-election next year, but he plans to go out with gun-control proposals blazing.
Paymar, a nine-term DFLer from St. Paul, made another in a series of attempts at Tuesday’s meeting of the Advisory Committee on Capitol Area Security to impose tighter controls over guns being carried into the Capitol before — as many legislators privately say they fear — someone gets shot. Paymar proposed that guns be banned completely from the Capitol (except for law enforcement officers) and that metal-detectors and security stations be installed to keep guns out. The proposal failed on a tie 2-2 vote of the six-member advisory committee, with one member absent and another — Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, abstaining, she said, because the measure might come before her court some day. Ironically, the Minnesota Judicial Center is the one building in the Capitol complex already protected by metal detectors.
The latest round in the fight over Capitol security comes in the wake of this year’s legislative session in which gun-safety proposals, including universal background checks, fizzled. Proponents were out-maneuvered by gun-rights groups that brought hundreds of gun owners to the Capitol, many of them openly carrying legal firearms in a display of armed strength that intimidated some lawmakers and ended hopes for tighter gun controls in the wake of last December’s Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut. Tighter gun controls also were undermined by the unwillingness of DFL leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton to push for measures they fear might backfire at the polls. Political sensitivities were so high that at the start of the session, DFL House members considered but rejected a proposal to ban weapons from the House galleries. The reason: DFLers feared such a ban might affect the vote in two special elections being held.
The whole gun issue vividly illustrated the gulf between DFL rhetoric and actions. Paymar, chair of the House Public Safety Committee, thought he had a deal with House Speaker Paul Thissen to bring a watered-down gun bill to the House floor so that it could be debated and amended in the House chamber but Thissen reneged on the deal and Paymar’s bill never came up for a vote, angering gun-safety groups and revealing deep cracks among the DFL majority. For a while, things were so strained that an abortive attempt was made in August to remove Paymar from the security task force.
Paymar, who will be 60 in December, was openly disappointed with the way things had played out but strongly denies that his frustrations had a direct impact on his decision to quit the Legislature to concentrate on his work against domestic abuse. Still, he says he intends to keep fighting for gun safety measures that will reduce the chances of a Minnesota gun massacre, and remains especially concerned about gun safety in the Capitol, one of only a dozen or so state capitol buildings in the country where guns are allowed and metal detectors are not installed.
“I’m not letting go of the issue just because I’m leaving,” Paymar said. “And the issue isn’t going to go away. How many people have to die, how many tragedies have to happen before politicians get some spine? People have to get some courage on this issue. If something were to happen and you didn’t act to prevent it, I don’t know how you look at yourself in the mirror the next day.”
Despite his disappointment in fellow Democrats, Paymar still believes that progress on the gun issue eventually will be made, and he plans in 2014, his final year at the Capitol, to re-introduce the same gun-safety package that went nowhere this year. His hope he says, lies in the way controversial issues have evolved in the past, such as same-sex marriage. Paymar points to the 1997 House vote to pass a “Defense of Marriage Act” prohibiting gay marriage. Paymar was one of only 19 legislators to vote against the measure. Last spring, 16 years later, the Legislature reversed course and legalized same-sex marriage.
“Things change,” Paymar says.
But it was the same old stalemate that was on display Tuesday when Paymar tried to get the Advisory Committee on Capitol Area Security to prohibit firearms inside the Capitol and its associated office buildings “(Minnesota) is an outlier in this country in regards to allowing firearms at our Capitol,” he argued.
Currently, almost 900 gun owners with permits to carry a gun can bring their weapon inside the 14-acre area, as long as they have notified Capitol security ahead of time. That notification system, however, has proved problematic due to lack of oversight about how owner information is collected as well as if each concealed carry permit is actually verified to be legal.
Paymar said that adding metal detectors and X-ray machines as well as deploying three security staffers per entrance, were needed in order to beef-up building safety. Such a system, State Patrol Capt. Rochelle Schrofer said, could cost approximately $15,000 and $45,000 per unit respectively, and approximately $240,000 annually for every three-person security team. That total also depended on the level of coverage and number of processing entrances manned by security officers, she said.
Paymar emphasized that the funding and logistical challenges of more security were worth the added peace-of-mind for employees and visitors coming to the Capitol.
“I’ve heard members of this committee say we haven’t had an incident yet and I would add that ‘yet’ is not a very good safety response,” he said. “Having to cross your fingers is irresponsible.”
Republican Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, a former sheriff, contested Paymar’s recommendation, stating it was trampling on citizen’s Second Amendment rights and was an example of “fixing something that isn’t broken.”
“This is a very strong emotional issue especially in the district that I come from,” Ingebrigtsen said. “But to hinder the folks that are doing what’s right to get the permit … is not the right way to go.”
Committee chair, Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, said she supported Paymar’s recommendation calling it “the right thing to do.”
“Whether or not we can afford it, that’s a different issue,” she said.
Paymar’s proposal failed on a 2-2 tie vote, with Chief Justice Gildea abstaining and DFL Sen. Ann Rest not present.
After adjourning the meeting, Prettner Solon clarified that though the recommendation failed to pass, the discussion on Capitol security was ongoing. She said another vote on the issue might be held in January.
The committee did pass a recommendation to implement an expiration date on the notification of intent-to-carry/possess a firearm in the Capitol. Currently, that notification allows gun owners to carry their firearms inside the building for an unlimited amount of time. The new requirement will mean gun owners must also include their date of birth and contact information with their notification. The committee also approved a recommendations to increase the number of state troopers at the Capitol to a total of eight and to add additional non-sworn security officers.
Paymar, who will remain in his seat for a year before he departs, says the fight is not over.
“Quite frankly, this place is vulnerable,” he said. “We want to keep this beautiful building open, and hope that nothing happens. But ‘hope’ and a concern for public safety don’t necessarily mix very well.”
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