The Crow Wing County Board is set to consider a resolution that, if passed, would designate the county as “Second Amendment dedicated.”

The resolution is on the board’s meeting agenda for Tuesday, April 14 — forwarded by Chairman Paul Koering three weeks after originally planned as the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of a March 19 public hearing on the matter and focused commissioners’ attention on mitigation efforts.

“I am moving forward with it, you know, and then the argument might be said, ‘Oh, well, why are we bringing it up now? You know, there’s so much going on,’” Koering said during a phone interview Wednesday. “Well, my answer is, you know, government can’t shut down. We’ve got to keep moving forward. … And this is something that I perceive — and I've also gotten the petitions that they had, there’s hundreds of names of people that want this — and so I just think this is something that people want.”

RELATED STORY: Crowd seeks Crow Wing County support of 2nd Amendment

Koering’s planned motion comes after County Administrator Tim Houle read letters from six residents who support passage of the resolution during the open forum portion of an emergency board meeting April 3. While open forum is typically a time reserved for those in attendance to share their views, meetings are currently closed to the public while the county is in a state of emergency in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

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The grassroots Second Amendment effort is among dozens 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 temporarily remove a person’s firearms if a judge determined they were a threat to themselves or others. Those measures are not expected to pass in a Republican-controlled state Senate.

Thus far, nine Minnesota counties have passed sanctuary resolutions, including nearby Wadena County, according to a map maintained by the nonprofit advocacy group Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus. Passage of these resolutions indicate county leaders might challenge or refuse to enforce these kinds of laws, including the potential expenditure of public funds in the process.

A March 10 Crow Wing County Board meeting was packed with about 200 people who showed up on the issue. But a day later on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, sparking a cascade of event cancellations, emergency declarations and dramatic changes to everyday life over the course of the following weeks.

Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle speaks during an emergency county board meeting April 3. Screenshot / Crow Wing County
Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle speaks during an emergency county board meeting April 3. Screenshot / Crow Wing County

Ironton resident Michael Starry, one of five administrators of a Facebook group called “Patriots for Crow Wing 2nd Amendment Dedicated (Sanctuary) County,” expressed frustration in his letter that commissioners had yet to act on the resolution despite what he characterized as ample time, public input and media coverage. He accused the board of “kick(ing) the can down the road” before asking for the resolution to be discussed at the upcoming meeting.

“Here we are, still being told that this isn't a matter of importance, that the public hasn't had time to weigh in on the issue. Months of public discourse and debate on the issue in the press as well as into your inbox disproves that position,” Starry wrote. “The reality is that the democratic process and representing the people of this great country does not stop because of a pandemic, it only becomes more important. The longer this pandemic continues, the more of this crisis instills fear and concern in the hearts of man, the more likely it is that the residents become concerned with their right to keep and bear arms, their right to due process and their right to be secure in the homes and property.”

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How to get involved

While meetings are currently closed to the public because of the coronavirus, residents may speak their minds directly to their county commissioners.

Visit https://bit.ly/34ooaeg for a map of commissioner districts. Visit https://bit.ly/3c9vCMW to view live video of Tuesday’s county board meeting, which begins 9 a.m.

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Koering explains support

While acknowledging gun legislation falls outside the scope of county government, Koering said he believes passing the resolution in question sends a message to the state Legislature. He expects his motion will be seconded by Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, but said he didn’t know how the rest of the board will vote. Franzen did not return a request for comment Friday.

On numerous occasions as a county commissioner, Koering has expressed hesitance to sign letters of support on behalf of the board. These letters typically support grant applications or are submitted with proposals on behalf of various organizations in the county. When this type of request comes before the board, Koering often has worried aloud about the board choosing winners or losers by approving support letters.

This situation is different, Koering said Wednesday.

“I don’t like us offering letters of support and letters of endorsement, because I think what happens is … the more you do that, I think the less those things mean anything at all,” he said. “And then when you really want to do something really important, like the Second Amendment thing, then it’s meaningless.”

When asked why the county board should weigh in on this issue as compared to any number of other social or political issues, Koering pointed to the passion he sees from those who support the resolution.

“It’s the passion of filling up the county board room, you know, overflowing into the hallway,” he said. “And the amount of emails that I’ve got, the amount of signatures in a petition that I’ve seen, I just perceive that people are really wanting to know where their county commissioner and their county board stands on this issue.”

Supporters of a resolution to make Crow Wing County a Second Amendment sanctuary county spoke to the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, March 10, during the open forum segment of the meeting. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Supporters of a resolution to make Crow Wing County a Second Amendment sanctuary county spoke to the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, March 10, during the open forum segment of the meeting. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

One concern raised by those who spoke out against the resolution at the March 10 meeting was the potential expenditure of public funds the resolution calls for. Language in the proposal states the county would oppose future efforts to unconstitutionally restrict Second Amendment rights “including through legal action, the power to appropriate public funds, and the right to petition for redress of grievances.” Koering said he hopes the county would spend money and mobilize the sheriff’s office to defend those rights, if it came to it.

The commissioner said he knows there are people on both sides of the issue, but his perception is those who support the resolution are in the majority in the county in which he’s spent his whole life. As for those constituents who don’t agree with his stance, Koering said they are welcome to share their beliefs with their county commissioner. Otherwise, he said those grievances can be addressed at the ballot box.

“Whether people agree or disagree with me, at least I’m straightforward with them. I’m not some typical politician that, you know, tries to placate them or tell them what they want to hear. I tell them where I'm at and we just agree to disagree,” Koering said. “Every four years they’ve got the opportunity to either run against me or to campaign against me and get somebody in there that they think that would best fit their beliefs. And that's the way this country works.”

Other commissioners want more input

Reached by phone Friday afternoon, three other commissioners said because the public hearing was canceled, they’d like to see some kind of formal public comment period before considering the resolution.

“I think a public hearing could be very beneficial,” Commissioner Bill Brekken said. “I know that there are two sides to this so I think that having the opportunity for both sides to be able to voice their concerns — when we didn’t do the public hearing, we could have done a time for public comment.”

Commissioner Steve Barrows said he appreciates the passion of those supporting the resolution, but wants residents to have an official outlet for comment on the record. He added he thinks it should occur once the state is no longer in a peacetime state of emergency.

“I think that’s the fair thing, because the original group had gotten together and there was no notice to the public,” Barrows said. “I think in all fairness and transparency, the public deserves the opportunity to express themselves on this particular subject.”

Commissioner Doug Houge echoed these sentiments.

“I want to hear both sides and, as I have learned throughout the years, make the decision based on what I hear from everybody,” Houge said. “… There’s been some compelling stories of those opposed to this, as well I understand the passion of those that support it. That said, it’s just important everybody gets that same opportunity to be heard.”

Cass County says no

While Crow Wing commissioners will consider this resolution next week, the Cass County Board took up a similar resolution Tuesday, April 7, and voted it down.

According to Cass County Administrator Josh Stevenson, the board supported the intent behind the initiative, but a majority had concerns over potential legal and financial implications. Stevenson said staff reached out to the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust, the joint powers entity that provides insurance for Cass County, and learned costs associated with potential lawsuits associated with the resolution would likely not be covered.

“They’ve made it very clear that if you take a position on such things like this, we had gotten legal advice that said hey, you should not tell your constituents that you’re going to restrict staff or resources like funding if you don’t think they’re following rules appropriately,” Stevenson said by phone Wednesday. “That is going to expose you to a liability and a potential lawsuit, depending on how people interpret that. … MCIT’s position on that was basically, if you guys decide to go down that road, you’re on your own. Because you’ve gotten advice that says, ‘I would not do that.’”

MCIT also insures Crow Wing County, and Crow Wing County Administrator Houle said Friday he was aware of Stevenson’s communication with MCIT.

Stevenson said another issue of concern was the potential perception the board would be directing other elected officials, such as the county sheriff and county attorney.

“They take their own oaths and they’re their own elected officials. And those are the two primaries that are basically in charge of enforcing laws,” Stevenson said. “And the rest of the board didn’t even want to go there. They didn’t even want the perception that they were somehow telling a sheriff or a county attorney how to do their job.”

Stevenson emphasized repeatedly the board believed in the Second Amendment cause, but these other considerations ultimately won out. Commissioner Jeff Peterson made the motion and it was seconded by Commissioner Neal Gaalswyk. Commissioners Robert Kangas, Scott Bruns and Dick Downham opposed the motion and it failed 3-2.

UPDATE: This story was updated to correct the city of residence for Michael Starry.

The Dispatch regrets the error.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.