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The battle for concealed carry
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Hamline University Law Professor Joe Olson formed Concealed Carry Reform NOW! in 1996 in his effort to make it easier for Minnesotans to legally carry handguns. (MPR File Photo)
The recent signing into law of Minnesota's Personal Protection Act marks a victory in a years long gun lobby battle to make it easier to carry handguns in Minnesota. It is also the second high profile, controversial piece of legislation to reach Gov. Tim Pawlenty's desk after bypassing conventional Senate debate. And even some lawmakers who voted yes on the concealed carry legislation say the process by which the bill became law underserves the public.

St. Paul, Minn. — Seven years ago a small group called the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance changed its name to Minnesota Concealed Carry Reform NOW! and set out to make it significantly easier to legally carry handguns in Minnesota. The group wanted Minnesota law changed so that rather than having discretion over concealed carry permit applications, law enforcement would be required to grant permits, provided citizens meet standardized criteria. Concealed Carry Reform NOW! founder Joe Olson says he started in 1996 by passing out 500 flyers at a gun show promoting a concealed carry meeting. About 50 ended up attending.

From that small start he has built a database of thousands of supporters across the state. He says they're regular Minnesotans who happen to feel strongly about their right to bear arms and who are accordingly happy to work against lawmakers who disagree with them.

"We went out and contacted other people who were interested," Olson said. "We set up an email alert system which has been wildly successful."

Sucessful to the extent Olson says CCRN supporters regularly forward newsletters, print them up and post them throughout the state by the thousands.

It came down to legislation by worrying about whether or not you're going to get re-elected.
- Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing

Since it set out to make carrying handguns easier in Minnesota, CCRN has spent a little more than $55,000 lobbying, according to documents on file with the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. The National Rifle Association has no formal relationship with CCRN but has been working in states across the country to pass concealed carry legislation.

Olson says NRA lobbying helped coordinate the final concealed carry push at the Minnesota legislature.

"We had significant help from the NRA in the last three months," Olson said. "Todd Atkins from the NRA came in here. He's probably been in Minnesota 40 out of the last 50 days."

The National Rifle Association's state political action committee has spent just short of $300,000 in Minnesota since 1996, including more than $60,000 last fall on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty.

Concealed carry has been before state lawmakers on several occasions. It passed the House three times beginning in 1996. In 2001, the Senate rejected concealed carry by just two votes.

With solid support in the House the Senate became the battleground. Olson says CCRN's work on the gun issue played a role in the defeat of some Democratic lawmakers, among them the two-term Senator from North Branch. "Twyla Ring had to go and we certainly helped push her out," Olson said.

Former Sen. Twyla Ring, DFL-North Branch, says she doesn't know exactly why she lost her re-election bid. She says several factors likely contributed, among them legislative redistricting and her decision to all but stop campaigning following the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone. Ring also has no doubt her opposition to concealed carry legislation played a role.

"I just know there was a lot of misinformation," Ring said. "Whether it came from that group or others, regarding what the bill in fact said."

Olson says between 500 and 1,000 CCRN supporters helped in the fight against Ring's reelection. Olson says people, not money, made CCRN successful.

Concealed carry proponents also targeted Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing. A former Marine, and self described "gun guy," Murphy ran afoul of the gun lobby for his counter proposal to the "shall issue" legislation. Murphy's plan would have made it easier to appeal a rejected concealed carry permit, but would not move Minnesota to a "shall issue" state.

"Their website has people's names on it, their addresses, emails; these are the legislators that are for us, these are the ones that are against us, these are the ones that we really despise, I was in that category," said Murphy.

But Murphy won and once again voted against concealed carry. Murphy and other lawmakers say the "Personal Protection Act," became law because some legislators were afraid to vote no.

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Image Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing

"It came down to legislation by worrying about whether or not you're going to get re-elected," Murphy said.

CCRN leader Joe Olson says that's precisely how democracy is supposed to work: "Of course. If you anger your constituents, you won't be reelected."

Olson says he knew after last fall's votes were counted, concealed carry had majority support in the Senate. But he also knew Senate leadership still opposed it and would try to keep it from a floor vote. That meant the best way to get it passed would be to bypass conventional lawmaking procedures.

"And you know I've been sort of struck by the screaming and whining from the other side," Olson said. "I mean playing by the rules is playing by the rules."

But even some lawmakers who voted for the bill are sharply critical of the process by which the measure made it way to Gov. Pawlenty's desk.

I think it could have used more work. I'm very angry that we did not have a debate about this bill in the Senate.
- Sen. Sheila Kiscaden, IP- Rochester

The Republican-controlled House delivered concealed carry to the Senate as an ammendment to an unrelated Department of Natural Resources bill which the Senate had previouosly passed. Senators then had just two choices; they could either vote to send the measure to a conference committee for debate, or they could vote conceal carry up or down on the Senate floor. They took the latter option and passed the bill, even though polls showed most Minnesotans did not want the law changed.

"I think it could have used more work," said Sen. Sheila Kiscaden, IP-Rochester. "I'm very angry that we did not have a debate about this bill in the Senate."

Kiscaden was a Republican until her latest reelection campaign. She says she lost her party's endorsement, in part, because of her support for legalized abortion and her position on gun control. Kiscaden says she ended up voting yes to concealed carry, but Kiscaden says the bill should have been more closely scrutinized. She says it was not because special interests, in concert with elected officials, circumvented debate.

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Image Sen. Sheila Kiscaden, IP-Rochester

"There are always special interest groups here," Kiscaden said. "The difference is the collusion between those of us who are elected with the special interest groups.

"I've seen this happen, you know the DFL sometimes will ally with some of their special interests, with labor or whatever to make things happen," she added. "What you see now is the Republican majority in the House is aligning themselves and facilitating the proposals that their special interests groups want and it's not good for the state if we allow this to continue, this thwarting of full debate on controversial issues."

It's the second time this session Republicans have forced legislation from the House to a Senate floor vote. House Republicans used a similar maneuver with their controversial 24 hour abortion waiting period bill which was also signed into law.

The Minnesota Personal Protection Act, the nation's 35th state right to carry law, takes effect at the end of the month but some DFL lawmakers are already saying they want to repeal the law. A new poll found a majority of Minnesotans think the state's new concealed carry law will make Minnesota more dangerous. Pawlenty says he's open to modifcations if legislators deem changes are in order.

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