They filled every seat, lined the walls and spilled into the cavernous foyer outside the Crow Wing County Boardroom Tuesday, March 10 — about 200 people seeking to send a message to county commissioners concerning the right to bear arms.
Although the topics did not appear on Tuesday’s agenda, the Second Amendment and gun control legislation dominated the first hour and a half of the county board meeting. Thirty-five people — some more than once — spoke during open forum. Most implored county commissioners to pass a resolution declaring Crow Wing County’s dedication to protecting residents’ Second Amendment rights, including potential legal action and the appropriation of public funds.
“This isn’t about guns. This is about due process. … I can’t rely on the federal system to protect me. I can’t rely on the state system to protect me. So I’m looking to my county to stand up and defend due process,” said Ironton resident Michael Starry. “... This is your opportunity to stand with your fellow citizens and tell us that you’ve got our backs the same way we have yours. Due process matters, the Constitution matters and our right to be free from tyranny, from oppression from any kind of madness that can take place — that matters.”
Starry is one of five administrators of a Facebook group called “Patriots for Crow Wing 2nd Amendment Dedicated (Sanctuary) County,” which sought to organize residents to attend Tuesday’s meeting en force. The grassroots effort is among dozens coalescing across the state and hundreds nationwide, organized in response to gun control legislation many view as too restrictive or outright unconstitutional.
In Minnesota, the target is two bills passed by the state House of Representatives — one expanding background checks to online sales and gun shows, and “red flag” legislation that would allow police officers to seize a person’s firearms if a judge determined they were a threat to themselves or others.
Thus far, six Minnesota counties have passed sanctuary resolutions, including nearby Wadena County, indicating county leaders would fight back against these kinds of laws. Starry said he and thousands of others want Crow Wing County to join that list, and the activists got one step closer Tuesday. Midway through the parade of residents approaching the microphone, Board Chairman Paul Koering said the county board would host a public hearing at 6 p.m. March 19 in the Crow Wing County Land Services Building meeting rooms. He added he would also champion the desired resolution, putting it up for a vote at the March 24 county board meeting.
If you go
What: Public hearing on proposed resolution that would make Crow Wing County a Second Amendment-dedicated county.
When: 6 p.m. March 19.
Where: Crow Wing County Land Services Building, meeting rooms 1 and 2, 322 Laurel St., Brainerd.
Although a show of hands indicated a large majority of those in the room sympathized with a sanctuary resolution, at least four people who spoke said they opposed such action. Barb McColgan of Brainerd questioned the need for such a resolution and expressed concern over the county potentially dedicating public funds collected from all county residents to advance the views of one particular group.
“I guess my question is, this is in our Constitution, we are going to have to follow the state laws and federal laws. And so I don’t see a purpose for this. It seems to me like we’re looking at what one special interest group wants,” McColgan said. “Couldn’t we just as well have a resolution to support the First Amendment, freedom of speech or freedom of religion? And, you know, we can go on and on, and why don’t we just resolve to support the entire Constitution, instead of breaking it apart? I feel that this resolution is divisive. It’s an issue that isn’t going to change anything if it’s passed.”
Emotions ran high at times as residents explained the importance of the county board’s support of the Second Amendment to them.
Brainerd High School student Boston Hackbart said the issue was a big one to him, most of his classmates and fellow service members in the Army National Guard. While sharing those thoughts, Hackbart appeared to be overcome by emotion. After several seconds of silence while Hackbart collected himself, Starry joined him at the podium.
“This young man has never been politically active and something generated that in him,” Starry said. “... This movement to try to protect liberty, to try to protect due process, it matters enough that he got up here trying to do this, which in my opinion is fricking amazing.”
Pam Johnson, a resident of northeastern Crow Wing County, told commissioners when she was in danger from her abusive husband years earlier, a red flag law would not have protected her. She said he bought a gun not from a store, but from the street corner.
“You can say somebody’s mentally unstable. You can say, hey, you know, a guy beats his wife. He’s got a restraining order, he said this and that, he can’t have a gun. Go down to your corner and buy one. It’s that easy,” Johnson said.
Several others pointed to the potentially dangerous implications or ineffectiveness of red flag legislation. Arguments included the idea people could lose their guns because of false claims by a vindictive ex-spouse, for example, or fears over how mental health problems may be defined and by whom.
Megan Pence, accompanied by two of her five children, said she’s concerned she could be a target of red flag legislation, despite her desire to protect her family.
“I have three kids with disabilities. Some of those disabilities put me in very vulnerable situations,” Pence said. “I also have a long background of depression and anxiety. And red flag laws start to make me nervous — if we’re going to start saying who can and can’t carry a firearm, who can and can’t protect their kids. Then I might be one of the first that can’t carry a firearm.”
But the county board has no purview over bills in the state Legislature — what commissioners do have, however, is the ability to send a message on behalf of Crow Wing County residents, activists said.
Brainerd resident Darin Schadt said he’s not the type to get political, but this issue moved him to get involved.
“The people in the Cities are not listening to what people got to say up here. We’re being left behind because the seven-county metro has all the votes, and it ain’t right,” Schadt said. “So that’s why we’re all standing here coming to you people to send a message down to them, This ain’t right, we’re not putting up for it. And we don't want it. It’s up to you guys to say no, our constituents up here do not want these things.”
UPDATE: The March meeting was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Commissioner Paul Koering has scheduled the controversial topic to be on the agenda at the board's regularly scheduled meeting April 14 at the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse in Brainerd.
UPDATE 4/12/2020: This story was updated to correct the city of residence for Michael Starry.
The Dispatch regrets the error.