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Olmsted County prepares for concealed carry
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Chris Stafford teaches a popular handgun safety course in Olmsted County. He supports new concealed carry legislation. Stafford says people who go through the process of obtaining a permit are less likely to break the law. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
At the end of the month a record number of Minnesotans will be able to qualify to carry a concealed weapon. The recently-passed law has become a controversial and emotionally-charged issue around the state. People in Olmsted County are already preparing for when the law goes into effect.

Rochester, Minn. — Right now about 90 Olmsted County residents are permitted to carry a concealed handgun. In a few years, as a result of the new gun legislation, that number is expected to grow to more like 2,500.

It's likely Chris Stafford will teach handgun safety to a healthy percentage of those people. For the past 11 years, Stafford and a partner have taught a popular NRA-certified gun safety class that often has a lengthy waiting list.

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Image Sheriff Steve Borchardt

On this day, Stafford's gun of choice at a rural indoor shooting range is a small semi-automatic Glock. Stafford shoots at a target 50 feet away. He's a very good shot. When he pulls in the target to examine it, he sees all five bullets have landed within inches of one another -- in the bull's-eye. Stafford's not impressed.

"You can see that's not perfect, but I've had a pot of coffee so far today," says Stafford, shrugging his shoulders.

Stafford favors the new handgun law. He says more than half of the nation has adopted similar legislation. Now, he says, its Minnesota's turn. Stafford says opposition to the bill is overblown.

"The people who think it's a problem, I pose them this question," he says. "What can I do with a permit that I couldn't do without a permit, except it's legal? And do these people travel to the other 34 states? Are they afraid to go there? They haven't given it another thought."

Stafford rattles off states that have less restrictive laws than Minnesota. He says those laws have produced few problems.

I think we have to be careful and measured about the fear factor. ... If there's something that needs tweaking, let's do so in good faith.
- Olmsted County Sheriff Steve Borchardt

Stafford has found an unlikely ally in Olmsted County Sheriff Steve Borchardt.

Just a few months ago, Borchardt was an outspoken opponent of changing the state's gun regulations. He's tracked the issue for the state Sheriff's Association, which remains opposed. But Borchardt says concessions won during final negotiations help make the new law more palatable.

"Recognizing the political reality -- that the votes were there to pass a much worse bill than we ended up with -- we worked hard to modify it," says Borchardt. "We're not thrilled, but we think we have a much better chance of making it work than we would have making the original bill work."

Borchardt says the new law gives him some discretion in denying a permit, if an applicant is borderline mentally ill or chemically dependent. And he says the burden for appealing a denial falls squarely on the plaintiff -- not the sheriff's office. He's also pleased he can change an administrative fee of up to $100 for conducting background checks and issuing the permit. Borchardt says that's key, especially in lean economic times.

Now he says he's just waiting to see how the law plays out in his county.

"I think we have to be careful and measured about the fear factor," he says. "A lot of effort has been made, and let's just move around in it for a year. If there's something that needs tweaking, let's do so in good faith."

If you ask high school chemistry teacher Chuck Handlon, there's a lot about the Personal Protection Act that could use tweaking. Handlon is a Rochester resident and a self-described pacifist. Handlon says he plans to join forces with other local peace activists to petition local businesses to ban handguns from their property.

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Image Chuck Handlon

"Just like the nonsmoking movement started one restaurant at a time -- publishing lists of restaurants that were non-smoker -- we plan on working in a similar matter," Handlon says. "We want to provide citizens with an opportunity to patronize those places that they know they can feel safe -- that there won't be people with concealed handguns."

It's unclear how many local businesses will choose to post signs. The region's largest employer is contemplating leading the way. Mayo Clinic officials are discussing the issue and are expected to ban handguns from all Mayo's Minnesota facilities. Mayo adopted a similar measure at it's branch in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The Personal Protection Act takes effect on May 28.

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