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ND panel hears proposals for no concealed weapon permits, guns in churches

Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, discusses his bill about guns in churches Thursday, Jan. 26. (Photo by John Hageman)

BISMARCK—With Second Amendment rights and public safety concerns at the forefront, North Dakota lawmakers heard testimony on a group of gun bills Thursday, Jan. 26.

Perhaps the most contentious piece of legislation heard Thursday was the so-called "constitutional carry" bill, introduced by Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck. That bill would make it legal for people who are at least 21 years old to carry a concealed firearm without a permit in North Dakota, as long as the carrier is not otherwise prohibited to do so by law.

In testimony to the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee Thursday, Becker said his bill would leave the current permitting process in place. North Dakota offers Class 1 and Class 2 licenses for carrying a concealed weapon, each with differing levels of training and reciprocity with other states.

As of Dec. 31, there were 48,700 active North Dakota concealed weapon licenses, 38,261 of which were Class 2 permits, according to the attorney general's website.

The Second Amendment was invoked multiple times during Thursday's hearings, with one representative reciting it word for word. Becker, in an effort to refute the comparison between a gun permit and a driver's license, said the right to bear arms is clearly written into the Constitution.

"There are no other amendments that are so explicit that there should not be any, cannot be any restrictions on it," he said.

Roger Kaseman, a former sheriff's deputy in California who got his start with the Burleigh County Sheriff's Department, cited the 2016 knife attack at a St. Cloud, Minn., mall. The attacker was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer.

"We live in a new world," Kaseman said. "Self-defense is going to become part of that world."

Opponents to Becker's bill, however, said gun training is necessary to promote public safety.

Todd Kranda, a lobbyist for Everytown for Gun Safety, presented written testimony from Thomas Davies, a retired municipal court judge from Fargo who said he is in "total opposition" to Becker's bill.

"Permitless carry lowers the bar for who may carry hidden handguns in public, abandoning core public safety standards," he wrote, wondering how many everyday interactions would turn deadly if the bill becomes law.

Chris Kopacki, state liaison for the National Rifle Association of America, said 10 states already allow law-abiding citizens to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. He rejected the argument that North Dakota would turn into the "wild west" with the bill's passage.

"Criminals already carry concealed firearms without regard for the law," Kopacki said.

Despite the Second Amendment arguments from proponents of House Bill 1169, Eric Thompson said times have changed since the Constitution was written. For one, there weren't crowded malls where fist fights could break out.

"Do you really want your loved ones to be in a mall where ... instead of throwing fists, (they) start pulling out weapons?" he said.

Later Thursday, the committee heard testimony on a bill that would change laws surrounding guns in churches.

The primary sponsor of House Bill 1273, Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said churches are currently allowed to "create a private security force" by approving individuals to carry a concealed weapon and submitting those names to law enforcement.

Koppelman's bill says a church may allow a license holder to carry a concealed weapon or prohibit the carrying of a dangerous weapon within its walls. In the latter case, it includes language that's similar to current statute that allows a "primary religious leader" or governing body of a church to authorize somebody with a license to carry a concealed weapon.

"If they still like what we have now, they can say 'no,'" he said. "They just have to put a small notice on or near the entrances of their building."

The bill was met with resistance from Christopher Dodson, the executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference. He said existing law strikes "a good balance."

"House Bill 1273 erases that balance and allows the individual with a dangerous weapon to disrespect the wishes of the religious organization," Dodson said. "It destroys the carefully designed compromise and tosses aside the religious and property rights of the place of worship."

On Friday, the committee will hear House Bill 1310, introduced by Rep. Dwight Kiefert, R-Valley City. It would allow people holding a Class 1 concealed weapons license to carry a concealed firearm on school property with permission from the school's governing body.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

(701) 255-5607
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