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Court fight resumes over handgun law
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Attorney General Mike Hatch, the state's chief lawyer, asked judges to revive the law and fix what he considers improper judicial interference in the Legislature's affairs. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
The fate of Minnesota's handgun permit law is now before a state Court of Appeals panel. Last summer, a Ramsey County judge struck down the law, which made it easier to get a handgun permit, after finding it was inappropriately attached to an unrelated bill in order to secure passage. The appellate court heard arguments about whether to reinstate the law or let the lower court ruling stand.

St. Paul, Minn. — The state constitution prohibits lawmakers from combining unrelated subjects into one package; no one disputes that. In 2003 lawmakers in the House of Representatives amended the handgun law onto an obscure technical bill on natural resources and then passed the combined package. Days later, the Senate gave its assent. No one disputes that, either. The question is whether the parliamentary tactics conflicted with the constitutional restriction that bills stick to one subject.

While the lower court ruled the two do conflict, Attorney General Mike Hatch disagrees. Hatch, arguing for the state, says the current court case is simply an attempt by opponents of the law to short-circuit the Legislature's authority.

"Here we have a very dedicated minority -- and I respect that -- but they wish to subvert the will of the majority as established by the results of the 2002 election and the majority vote in both houses of the 2003 Legislature. At no time should the judicial branch be utilized as a tool of parliamentary maneuvering to overcome the clear will of the people," Hatch said.

The handgun bill allows anyone meeting certain public safety criteria to receive a permit to carry a handgun in public. Previously, local law enforcement officials had wide discretion in denying such permits.

Since enactment, about 25,000 permits have been granted. Hatch says the measure and the bill it was paired with share a theme of regulating potentially hazardous behavior. That, he says, is enough to pass constitutional muster. And he noted that the handgun law wasn't snuck into a bill to mislead the public.

When you start talking about things like church parking lots -- prohibiting firearms there -- you've now stepped outside of the house of worship and are starting to regulate what people do in their automobiles.
- John Caile, Concealed-Carry Reform Now

The bill received extensive media coverage and was debated in both the House and Senate. But Betsy Schmiesing, arguing for opponents of the law, say that's irrelevant to the constitution's single subject clause.

"You can't get around the language simply by saying, 'well, there was media attention so let's just give them a wink and a nod and we'll all move on,'" Schmiesing said.

Schmiesing represents several religious groups and local congregations who brought the original suit against the handgun act. And, in fact, the lower court had also touched on the subject of religious freedom.

The arguments before the Appeals Court focused on the process used to enact the law. But the lower court judge had issued a broader opinion than that, suggesting that the law, even if passed correctly, would infringe on congregations who, for religious reasons, objected to handguns on their premises or even in their parking lots.

Hatch, who defended the law and the process used to enact it, acknowledged it may be vulnerable when applied to churches.

"When you talk about a house of worship, you can't require a church, a house of worship, to put up a particular sign to ban guns. They can use whatever means they normally would use to communicate to their members that they don't want pistols on the premises," he said.

The law's main backers say they don't buy that argument. John Caile, a spokesman for Concealed-Carry Reform Now, says he believes the Appeals Court will act to reinstate the law and that the question of religious infringement is baseless. Caile says he's particularly troubled by suggestions that churches should be able to ban guns from their parking lots.

"When you start talking about things like church parking lots -- prohibiting firearms there -- you've now stepped outside of the house of worship and are starting to regulate what people do in their automobiles. And that's a dangerously slippery slope," he said.

The Appeals Court could take several months to render its decision, and any result could ultimately be appealed to the state Supreme Court. Caile says regardless of how the legal process turns out, he's confident a new version of the law could easily pass the Legislature if necessary.