Originally appeared in the Star Tribune March 17th, 2021.
The sight of people flaunting assault rifles is becoming commonplace at political rallies of Trump supporters and right-wing causes. During the past year, Michigan, Oregon, Kentucky and Idaho all had incidents where people, armed to the teeth and dressed for combat, walked into their state Capitols to threaten public officials. These incidents made national news because the brazen intimidation was so shocking.
In Minnesota, the carrying of handguns inside the Capitol has become common during legislative hearings on gun regulation issues.
Fifty years ago, it wasn’t this way. In 1967, when the Black Panthers walked into the California state Capitol heavily armed, there was strong bipartisan support for prohibiting the carrying of loaded firearms. Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and even the NRA supported the Mulford Act, which sharply restricted the carrying of guns, not just in the California Capitol, but elsewhere. Reagan said there is “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”
Now however, when it is largely white conservatives who are taking guns to Capitols, the NRA and the Republican Party seem to consider it perfectly appropriate for their allies to use guns to intimidate political opponents.
Security at the Minnesota Capitol has increased significantly, especially in the months since the election and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington.
However, unless we change the law, once COVID restrictions are lifted and the public is allowed back in the Capitol, any Minnesotan with a permit to carry can bring a gun, whether concealed or openly visible, throughout the Minnesota Capitol complex.
We do not allow people to bring guns into county courthouses, into many big office buildings in the Twin Cities or at Vikings, Wild and Twins games. Thirty-two other states require people to walk through a metal detector before entering their Capitol buildings.
After passage of Minnesota’s concealed carry law, permit holders were allowed to bring guns into the Capitol. Initially, they were required to notify authorities, so it was easy to track how many were carrying guns. Ordinarily, few people brought guns but there was a spike whenever legislation on gun safety was being considered.
The Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus urged their members to show up, armed, to those committee meetings. There were about 150 notifications for one such hearing in 2013, almost triple the number in the entire previous year.
A hearing on gun legislation does not pose any greater safety risk than other hearings and there is no greater need for personal protection. Opponents of gun legislation carry guns to those hearings to intimidate.
There are other ways guns are used to intimidate as well. One lobbyist told some legislators whom she was lobbying that she carried a gun at the Capitol because she feared people lobbying on the other side of the issue, calling them dangerous — an insidious way of undermining her opponents. It is not surprising that the opponents reported difficulty getting appointments to make their case with legislators.
The 2005 law that allowed carrying of handguns in public allowed the same people to carry assault rifles and other long guns in public. That has led to the increasingly common sight of heavily armed people at rallies and protests. They are not armed for personal protection. They do so to intimidate and strike fear in others.
Minnesotans can consider and discuss gun legislation as rational adults; hearings should be conducted without armed intimidation. Consequently, I have introduced SF 2048, which would prohibit the carrying of guns at the Capitol and restore the law that blocked people from bringing assault rifles to rallies and protests.
We should take security at the Capitol and at political rallies seriously before there is a tragic attack that kills people. At some point, security experts might determine that metal detectors are needed at the Capitol. Unfortunately, metal detectors create an oppressive climate which makes a place feel more militarized and less safe. Whether or not they are necessary now, we should prepare and plan for the possibility in the future, including quick implementation if a credible threat appears. But for now, it’s time to treat the Capitol like county courthouses and other places that prohibit guns. Public discourse on contentious issues can be done in a rational manner without allowing some to intimidate others. Public safety will benefit as well.
Allowing guns at the Capitol in these divided times is a recipe for disaster.