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Sponsor only one to testify in favor of ND bill allowing elected officials to carry guns in public buildings

BISMARCK - A school superintendent, highway patrol lieutenant, union official and North Dakota Supreme Court justice were among those who voiced concerns Tuesday about a bill that would allow elected officials to carry concealed weapons in the st...

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Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo

BISMARCK – A school superintendent, highway patrol lieutenant, union official and North Dakota Supreme Court justice were among those who voiced concerns Tuesday about a bill that would allow elected officials to carry concealed weapons in the state Capitol and other public buildings.

Lt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol said a gunman in the House or Senate chambers would create “mass chaos,” and the patrol is concerned that having multiple people drawing weapons would make it hard for officers to identify the real threat.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time to process that through your mind: Is that person an elected official or is that person our suspect or shooter?” he said, offering neutral testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.

House Bill 1157 would exempt elected officials with a concealed weapons license from a current state law that makes it a Class B misdemeanor to possess a firearm or dangerous weapon at a public gathering or in a publicly owned or operated building.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said it was inspired by the Oct. 22, 2014, shootings at the Canadian parliament in Ottawa, in which the sergeant-at-arms ultimately shot and killed the gunman. Koppelman said it made him wonder how a similar situation would play out at the North Dakota Capitol.

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“I quickly realized that we would likely be sitting ducks,” he said.

Koppelman, the only person to testify in favor of the bill, said the alternative is to install metal detectors or greatly increase the number of armed guards at the Capitol, which would restrict public access and increase costs.

Eight states currently allow citizens with a concealed weapons permit or license to carry a concealed weapon into public buildings or the statehouse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Koppelman said he has a concealed weapons permit but doesn’t know how many other lawmakers do, “nor do I presume to know how many in our chambers might already be carrying.”

Iverson said citizens with concealed weapons licenses don’t undergo the same training as law enforcement in how to respond to active threat situations, and “they should not be obligated to respond to such incidents.

“This bill could open the door to future legislation allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons in publicly owned buildings. Our security protocols would need to change,” he said.

Committee members questioned whether the bill’s language was too broad and if the exemption would extend all the way to township officers and those who’ve been appointed to elected positions. Koppelman said he’s open to defining the exemption further.

Members of North Dakota United, a union representing 11,000 educators and public employees, have “serious concerns” that adjusting the law for lawmakers who meet in regular session for only 80 days every two years “seems a bit troubling, if not aggressive,” said Stuart Savelkoul, assistant executive director.

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“There are hundreds of people in this building who would feel less safe with the passage of this bill,” he said.

The committee’s chairman and Koppelman’s father, Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said Savelkoul’s testimony implied that the group’s members feel threatened by elected officials, and he asked if that was the case. Savelkoul said the general consensus is that fewer guns make for a safer workplace in public buildings.

“Thankfully, we haven’t had any catastrophic events here, and I know that’s what everybody says until there is one,” he said. “But at this point in time, I think our general perception is changing this (law) in this way will do more harm than good.”

State lawmakers have also introduced bills to allow concealed weapons in churches and in schools if approved by the local school board. Similar bills failed last session.

In a foreshadowing of the likely debate on the guns-in-schools bill, Hazen Public Schools Superintendent Mike Ness said he supports the Second Amendment right to bear arms but opposes allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons in schools. If elected officials are allowed to bring guns to basketball or hockey games, “that would be a real concern for school administrators,” he said.

Supreme Court Justice Dale Sandstrom offered a bill amendment that would exclude court facilities from the definition of public buildings, citing concern about maintaining security in courtrooms. State law allows judges to carry concealed weapons in courthouses, though Sandstrom said, “I don’t know of any judge who’s armed, and I guess I’ve never really quizzed them.”

Iverson said the Capitol has armed highway patrol officers and civilian security staff monitoring cameras and doing daily walk-throughs and door checks, and he’s “very comfortable” with their ability to respond to a threat.

He said there may be room for enhancements such as metal detectors and restricted access to certain doors, but added it’s “almost admirable that our Capitol is so open.

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“And, from the powers that may be, we want to keep it that way,” he said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

 

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