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Appeals court upholds ruling striking down gun law
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John Caile, a spokesman for Concealed Carry Reform Now, which championed the new law, rejected the court's finding that the conceal-carry law's passage violated the single-subject rule. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Tuesday struck another blow against the law that makes it easier for Minnesotans to get handgun permits. The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel upheld a lower court decision that said the Legislature improperly passed the handgun bill in 2003.

St. Paul, Minn. — In the opinion, Judge R.A. Randall writes that the Court of Appeals was not ruling on the gun law's merits, but rather whether the process by which it became law is constitutional. The state constitution says lawmakers cannot combine unrelated subjects into one bill.

Legislative supporters attached the gun language onto a natural resources bill in 2003 to force a full Senate vote.

David Lillehaug, who represents a group of churches, the city of Minneapolis and other nonprofits that challenged the law, says they're happy with the ruling.

"This is only the latest in a string of court decisions over two years that found serious constitutional problems in the so-called conceal and carry bill and we are very pleased that the Court of Appeals applied the long standing law in the state that you have to pass a bill with just one subject, not two," he said.

Attorney General Mike Hatch issued a statement saying he would appeal the ruling. Hatch had argued that the two bills were related because they share a theme of regulating hazardous behavior. He also argued that the Legislature didn't add the measure onto another bill since since the media covered the debate extensively in both the House and Senate.

Others argue that it could be problematic for state lawmakers if the ruling stands on appeal. Hamline Law professor Joe Olson was one of the architects of the conceal and carry law. He says lawmakers routinely group several bills into one larger bill.

"We're now going to have the Minnesota courts acting as a super conference committee on every bill that the Legislature has passed in the past five years and every bill that the Legislature will pass in the future," he said.

Olson says he and others wanted to change the law so citizens would have an easier time getting a handgun permit. Prior to 2003, local sheriffs and police chiefs had wide discretion to issue or deny permits. After the bill became law in 2003, local law enforcement had to issue a permit to anyone over the age of 21 who had received training, had no criminal record and no history of mental health problems. Twenty-five thousand people have received handgun permits since 2003.

The rules for people seeking new permits will revert to pre-2003 law assuming the Appeals Court decision stands.

Gov. Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung says the governor will lobby the Legislature to pass the bill again. He says there have been few problems with permit holders.

"The experience that we had really debunked the "Wild West" argument that had previously existed, so at this point this is something that is in the hands of the higher courts and the Legislature. If the courts don't take action then we feel the Legislature will need to react," he said.

But critics of the legislation say they don't know if permit holders have broken any laws because police aren't allowed to release that information.

Sen. Wes Skoglund, DFL-Minneapolis, says he will fight any attempts to get a new law passed.

"We do know of a security guard who shot somebody in the back. We do know of a case of a man who shot at his brother because his brother drove on the grass. We do know of multiple cases like that. We don't know of the others. We don't know what other people are carrying guns and pointing them at people because it's all private data. The law that they passed says you can't reveal that," he said.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum acknowledged that it may be more difficult to get the bill passed in the Senate He says he doesn't intend to take any action on a new bill until the Minnesota Supreme Court weighs in.

But one Republican House member doesn't think lawmakers should wait. Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, says he intends to introduce the same legislation over the next few days.

"This is a backup," he said. "Let's start the whole process over again just in case the Minnesota Supreme Court upholds that ruling. It's a fair way to do it."

The five-year permits issued before the law was declared unconstitutional will remain valid.