BY JOHN WELSH
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Tuesday he supports changing Minnesota's new handgun law - which goes into effect today - to make it easier for churches and businesses to keep guns off their premises.
The change proposed by Republican leaders would mean private establishments would only have to post a no-gun sign or tell patrons of their no-gun policy if they want to keep guns out. The law passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Pawlenty last month requires both the posting and personal notification.
"This should be an easy change to make,'' Pawlenty said.
But the process promises to be anything but easy. Not with today being possibly the last day of the 2003 legislative session. And not with an issue as politically charged as guns.
The proposed change will likely set off a game of political brinkmanship between the Republicancontrolled House and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor-controlled Senate. Four budget bills must be passed before the Legislature, which entered a special session last week, can go home. Those votes may come today or later this week, meaning there is little time for a lengthy debate or conference committee negotiations on the gun law.
The House may vote today to make the simple alteration - changing the word "and" to "or" on the notification issue for private establishments.
Critics of the law, however, may see this as an opportunity to press for more change in the law - or even call for its outright repeal.
"The safest way to clean up the bill is to repeal it,'' said Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFLMinneapolis.
Other less extreme measures also are expected to be debated. One could be increased authority for employers to prohibit employees from having guns at work. The current law says employers can restrict workers from having guns while "in the course and scope of employment,'' but some say that creates loopholes for workers on break or in the company parking lot. Another proposed change could be to prohibit permit holders from drinking alcohol while carrying their gun. Current law allows them to have a blood-alcohol level of less than 0.04.
Other proposals would ban handguns from certain locations such as the Minnesota State Fair, sporting events, courthouses, city halls and public parks.
"A one-word change is not enough,'' said Rebecca Thoman, executive director of Citizens for a Safer Minnesota. "There is too much wrong with this law for it to take effect.''
The law, called the Personal Protection Act, requires local sheriffs to grant handgun permits to those who are at least 21 years old, have proper training, have not committed a felony or certain other crimes and are not seen as a threat to themselves or others. Minnesota law until midnight Tuesday night required applicants to show they needed the gun to respond to a personal threat or as job requirement.
The gun issue had been part of the political debate for years, but strong gains by Republicans in legislative races and Pawlenty's victory last November gave supporters a strong edge this session. The bill passed the House 88-46 and 37-30 in the Senate.
The state predicts the number of permits will go from 12,000 to 90,000 in three years.
Since the bill's passage, some have questioned its impact on their lives and livelihoods. The Minnesota Twins said they were considering pregame announcements informing fans that guns were not welcome. An Edina church last week filed a lawsuit against the state saying the law infringes on religious freedom.
On Monday, Pawlenty's chief of staff, Charlie Weaver, said the governor would be open to changing the private establishment portion of the law during the 2004 session. On Tuesday morning, House Speaker Steve Sviggum said he wanted to change the bill during the remaining days of the current special session.
The sponsors of the bill - Sen. Pat Pariseau, R-Farmington, and Rep. Lynda Boudreau, R-Faribault - had said the double notification by sign and verbal warning was not necessary for churches and businesses. But Tuesday, they said the differing interpretations of the law had caused them to seek the change sought by Pawlenty and Sviggum.
Sviggum called the issue a "technical glitch.'' He first sought to add the change to the annual end-of-session technical corrections bill that lawmakers use to clean up misspellings, math errors and other goofs passed in earlier bills in the session. But DFLers rejected that plan, saying the proposed change was a significant policy change to a controversial bill and not appropriate for a technical corrections bill.
"It wasn't a drafting error. This was the way they drafted it,'' said Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, the chief author of the correction bill. "I find it offensive that now they realize the ramifications of the law they are trying to use the technical corrections bill to try to get them out of a jam.''
But Republicans warned DFLers about seeing this proposed change as an opportunity to seek more amendments to the new gun law.
"We aren't intending to open up the law. The governor won't support any other changes but this,'' Weaver said. "This is a clarification. We are hoping to change one word from 'and' to 'or.' ''
THE PORTION OF THE GUN LAW IN DISPUTE
The "and" in the second-to-last paragraph is at issue.
Subd. 17. [POSTING; TRESPASS.] (a) A person carrying a firearm on or about his or her person or clothes under a permit or otherwise who remains at a private establishment knowing that the operator of the establishment or its agent has made a reasonable request that firearms not be brought into the establishment may be ordered to leave the premises. A person who fails to leave when so requested is guilty of a petty misdemeanor. The fine for a first offense must not exceed $25. Notwithstanding section 609.531, a firearm carried in violation of this subdivision is not subject to forfeiture.
(b) As used in this subdivision, the terms in this paragraph have the meanings given.
(1) "Reasonable request" means a request made under the following circumstances:
(i) The requester has prominently posted a conspicuous sign at every entrance to the establishment containing the following language: "(INDICATE IDENTITY OF OPERATOR) BANS GUNS IN THESE PREMISES."; and (emphasis added)
(ii) The requester or its agent personally informs the person of the posted request and demands compliance.