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Judge shoots down concealed carry gun law
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Church officials originally sued over the part of the law that allows guns in privately owned buildings, such as businesses and churches, unless signs are posted at all entrances to let people know otherwise. (MPR file photo)
A Ramsey County judge has struck down the state's handgun permitting law, ruling that the process used to broaden the availability of permits was unconstitutional. Opponents of the law, including several Twin Cities churches, applauded the judge's decision. Supporters of more access to gun permits, however, vowed to continue the fight.

St. Paul, Minn. — Until last year, local law enforcement agencies had broad discretion over who might receive a handgun permit, and they often required some proof from applicants that a weapon was necessary for their protection. Those requirements were stripped away last year, opening the permitting process to anyone who could meet certain background criteria.

But in order to make the change, lawmakers added the new provisions to a non-controversial Department of Natural Resources bill that district court judge John Finley has ruled was "totally unrelated." That, the judge says, violates a constitutional provision requiring that bills embrace one subject and one subject only.

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Image Plaintiffs' attorney David Lillehaug

Attorney David Lillehaug represents a group of Twin Cities religious organizations that challenged the conceal and carry handgun law.

"This is really a splash of cold water for a Legislature that got a little overheated," Lillehaug says. "And this was rammed through in a way that when you wake up the next morning, you shouldn't be particularly proud of what you did in passing a law like this."

Attorney General Mike Hatch represents the State of Minnesota in the matter, and argued to uphold the new law. He's said he'll appeal the lower court decision directly to the state Supreme Court if possible.

Gun advocate Joe Olson says one way or another, the new law will eventually prevail. Olson, president of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, says if necessary, lawmakers can simply repass the measure, this time avoiding the procedural pitfalls identified in the judge's decision.

"This law is going to stay in effect. It may be temporarily off the books if we get a bad Supreme Court decision. But the Legislature will pass it again. We've had it now for over a year. None of the problems that were foreseen have come about," Olson says.

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Image Hatch plans to appeal

The plaintiffs in the case had also argued that the law violated their religious freedoms, by restricting the rights of churches to ban weapons in their parking lots and other property. The judge didn't definitively rule on that question, but suggested the churches had a legitimate complaint.

The ruling, however, creates a legal limbo for local law enforcement officials and people who have recently received a permit. Washington County Sheriff Jim Frank says his office has granted almost 1,000 new permits in the last year -- 10 times as many as had previously existed in his jurisdiction.

"I don't know if that means we cancel all permits, and then we have to have people re-apply, and then we go back to the system that we were simply before," Frank says. "That seems to be the real question at this point."

Attorney General Mike Hatch says the ruling means the original law once again governs the permitting process. That returns discretion to Frank and other sheriffs and police chiefs, in deciding who gets a permit and who doesn't. But Hatch says that any permits issued under the newly struck down law would remain valid.

This law is going to stay in effect. It may be temporarily off the books if we get a bad Supreme Court decision. But the Legislature will pass it again.
- Joe Olson, Concealed Carry Reform Now

"Even with the repeal of this law, all of those people who received that permit would be eligible for the permit under the prior law," Hatch says. "The chief law enforcement official having issued it does not have the authority to simply revoke it or rescind it at this time."

Hatch says beyond the immediate issue of who can or can't carry a weapon, the case should help resolve the thorny issue of what it means for a bill to address only one subject.

Rep. Linda Boudreau, R-Faribault, is the chief House sponsor of the conceal and carry law. She says amendments are routinely added to bills as they move through the legislative process -- and that the ruling could invite challenges on any number of subjects.

"We have amended many amendments onto other bills and they have embraced two different subjects. So where are the challenges there?" she asks.

In particular, Boudreau also authored a requirement that women seeking an abortion wait 24 hours before undergoing the procedure. That measure followed a path through the Legislature similar to the conceal and carry bill -- attached, in the case of abortion, to a bill regulating circuses. That law has not been challenged.

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