The Crow Wing County Board unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday, June 23, declaring its dedication to the Second Amendment — but it wasn’t the resolution two county commissioners and activists in support of the measure wanted.
An amended version of the resolution, penned by County Attorney Don Ryan, did not include a section stating the county would use any means at its disposal — including legal action, appropriating public funds and directing law enforcement and county employees — to avoid enforcing laws it deems unconstitutional.
At the request of Commissioner Bill Brekken, Ryan explained to the board the amended version of the resolution reflected the position of the Minnesota County Attorney’s Association. That organization prepared an April 17 position paper, which argued Second Amendment sanctuary or dedicated resolutions declaring counties would oppose state law or policies were unconstitutional themselves. Ryan modified the original resolution at the request of county officials, he said.
“The only thing that takes out of there is the attempted position to tell the county sheriff or the county attorney how they will or will not enforce the law and does not in and of itself say you will spend county dollars, … that you wouldn’t initiate litigation against the state of Minnesota, which I don’t believe you can do in opposition toward bills in the Legislature.”
Introduction of the amended resolution comes on the heels of a 30-day public comment period, during which county residents had the opportunity to weigh in on a similar proposal brought forward by a group that organized in response to gun control legislation at the state Capitol — legislation some view as too restrictive or outright unconstitutional. Similar pushes for local government support against gun control measures have popped up across the state and nationwide.
In Minnesota, the targets were 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 law enforcement officers to temporarily remove a person’s firearms if a judge determined they were a threat to themselves or others. Those measures did not pass in a Republican-controlled state Senate.
Nine Minnesota counties have passed these resolutions sometimes billed as sanctuary resolutions, including nearby Wadena and Todd counties, 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 gun control laws, including the potential expenditure of public funds in the process.
Crow Wing County received 222 comments on the resolution, of which about 58% were in favor and 42% against, according to Commissioner Rosemary Franzen.
What the commissioners said
Kicking off the discussion, Chairman Paul Koering permitted virtual comments from Michael Starry, a leader in the local movement to obtain a resolution dedicating the county to the Second Amendment.
“Immediately after the closing of the public comment period, we find out the county attorney has rewritten the resolution and offered that for passage, which I find to be an interesting lack of transparency,” Starry said via Microsoft Teams. “You’ve asked the community to comment on one, and then present a different one. Then it was asked to be removed from this so we could review it and then suddenly it shows back up on our agenda, which I find confusing.”
Starry will appear on the primary ballot in August as one of two challengers to Commissioner Doug Houge in District 5, alongside Tom Nixon.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Koering turned to Commissioner Steve Barrows for a response. While Koering previously championed the resolution, it was Barrows who asked for the amended resolution to be on Tuesday’s agenda.
Barrows said in addition to concerns raised by the county attorney’s association about the legality of the original resolution, he was also concerned about potential financial impacts. The Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust, the joint powers entity that provides insurance for Crow Wing County, previously stated costs associated with potential lawsuits resulting from the resolution would likely not be covered.
Koering and Franzen said Tuesday they believed that information to be incorrect. However, an email shared by Cass County Administrator Josh Stevenson with Houle in early April supported the fact MCIT may exclude coverage, particularly if the county board had a legal opinion or a judge’s ruling the resolution violated its obligations to follow state law and chose to do it anyway.
Barrows said he was concerned about spending tax dollars on a fight he doesn’t believe the county could win.
“I think most of us are concerned about tax dollars and how to spend them and being responsible to the citizens of Crow Wing County, and I think this resolution best exemplifies where we should be going,” Barrows said.
Franzen said she didn’t agree with Ryan’s interpretation of the county attorney association’s stance, and she said she’d heard of another attorney who reviewed the original resolution and stated the board did have the authority to adopt it.
Barrows said while he introduced the amended resolution, he felt as though the oath of office taken by commissioners already covered their dedication to the state and federal constitutions, along with their amendments.
“However, I think that to satisfy people, I’m willing to go with this resolution that I read and made the motion on, but personally, I swore my oath and I would uphold that 110% to anybody, any day of the week,” Barrows said.
Barrows said he felt those who were passionate about this issue should take it to lawmakers who could have a direct impact on the legislation, either in St. Paul or Washington, D.C.
Koering said he disagreed with Barrows over whether county commissioners had anything to say on the issue. He said the approximately 200 people who packed the county board room in March wanted the board to weigh in.
“Do we really have a vote on it? Probably not, but they want to know where their elected officials are on this issue,” Koering said.
“Here’s my oath Mr. Chair, here’s my oath,” Barrows said, as he held up a piece of paper bearing the oath of office. “That’s where I stand.”
Franzen said she agreed with Barrows about the oath, but noted that’s why she feels she must support the resolution, given the House passed the gun control legislation this session.
“This is why this movement is happening,” she said. “ … We want it to stay the way it is. We don’t want the House of Representatives to be changing and adding. It isn’t what I swore to uphold.”
Barrows said legislation like this may appear again, or legislation going the other direction raising the ire of different people may arise.
“We aren’t in a position with our authority level to address those concerns. As individuals, yes, but not as a county,” Barrows said.
Brekken said the whole thing has become a political matter in what’s supposed to be a nonpartisan body.
“If our legislators want me to legislate then they should give me the power to legislate, and I’ll legislate. … I see it only as something that is going to separate us and split us up,” Barrows said. “If they want us to be a sanctuary state, we should not do it county by county, we should do it as a state issue, and make sure that we’re there and we’re united.”
The first public mention of a sanctuary resolution in Crow Wing came in late February, when state Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, told the Dispatch he planned to submit a letter to the Crow Wing County Board in favor. Heintzeman said he viewed his support as a way to establish protections against encroachment by a possible leftward swing in state Legislatures in coming years. According to Houle, as of Tuesday Heintzeman had not submitted any kind of letter to commissioners, nor did he participate in the public comment period.
Koering said he felt the board should react to the fact so many people showed up in support of the resolution, noting other contentious issues in the past have drawn crowds and the board has reacted.
“Just because this is none of our concern, yes, I think it is our concern because we’re all citizens of this state and this country,” Koering said. “And so when a group of our citizens, and our constituents, come in here and want us to take action or they want to know where we stand on an issue, so we just say, ‘Mmm, no, this is too political for me, and I don’t think we should take this up.’ No, I don’t believe that, Steve.”
Barrows again pointed to the oath of office.
“They know where we stand. If the Second Amendment is in that Constitution, I believe the five of us will uphold the Second Amendment,” Barrows said. “If somebody disagrees with that, let me know now because I think your constituents deserve to know that.”
Koering referred to a quote he’d heard he felt was relevant to the discussion.
“When World War II was going on and the Nazis were gathering up, they said first they came from the Jewish people and nobody said anything, then they came for the handicapped and nobody said anything, then they came for the gay people and nobody said anything,” he said. “So if nobody ever speaks up, Steve, and stands up and says … what the hell is going on down there, I think we need to weigh in, I really do.”
Franzen said with a majority of public comments in favor, alongside a petition containing about 2,200 names, she felt there was a “big, big majority” of people who supported the resolution. Barrows noted 222 comments represents less than one-half of 1% of the county’s population, which tops 65,000 in the most recent U.S. Census population estimate.
Koering introduced an amendment to Barrows’ motion, which would replace the county attorney’s version of the resolution with the one originally brought forth by activists. The amendment failed following a roll call vote, with Houge, Brekken and Barrows opposed. Barrows’ motion to pass Ryan’s edited resolution then went up for another roll call vote, and all five commissioners voted in favor. Franzen noted her support was with reservations, because she didn’t want it to appear as though she didn’t support the Second Amendment.
Houge did not speak up on the issue during Tuesday’s meeting. Following adjournment, Houge said by phone he wanted his constituents to know he supports gun rights, but was not feeling up to a showdown with Koering. He said he felt his most important work as a commissioner is to ensure the taxpayers of Crow Wing County aren’t on the financial hook for decisions that weren’t thought through, and he said he thought it prudent to listen to the advice of the county attorney on the board’s potential liability.
Houge said he recognized the passion of those who felt strongly about the Second Amendment issue, but felt as though they should direct that energy toward a governmental body that could do something about it.
“They should get on a bus and go to Washington,” Houge said.