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County attorneys may be able to carry weapons at work

ST. PAUL - County attorneys might soon be able to carry weapons while on duty if a bill unanimously passed by a Minnesota House committee Thursday makes it through the Legislature.

The bill would exempt county attorneys and assistant county attorneys from a state statute prohibiting local government employees from carrying firearms while on duty. Public defenders, court administrators and others already are allowed to do so.

The bill passed unanimously in the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance committee, along with another that would impose stiffer penalties on those who are convicted of injuring or killing a prosecutor.

The discussion and vote came soon after Cook County prosecutor Tim Scannell was shot and injured in a Grand Marais, Minn., courthouse. Scannell spoke Thursday in favor of the second bill.

The bills' author, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, also the committee chair, said while some have accused this proposal of being a "knee jerk reaction" to the Cook County shooting, the bill actually was written before the assault on Scannell.

Judges have the ability to limit firearms in the courtroom, and most have. The bill would not supersede that ability, Cornish said.

"This bill doesn't restrict judges from restricting firearms," he said. "Whatever they can do now they can do then (if it passes)."

Most courtrooms already are weapon-free outside of bailiffs or other peace officers, Jim Franklin of the state Sheriffs' Association said Thursday.

"I'm not aware of any courtroom in Minnesota that allows guns," he said.

Instead, the proposal is meant to allow county attorneys to protect themselves in public or other situations when they might still be considered "on duty."

Stevens County Attorney Aaron Jordan said that his views on this issue might not be mainstream. Although he could understand why the issue was coming up, Jordan said he would not want to carry a gun and thought the option might make others uncomfortable.

"When something really bad like what happened in Cook County occurs, I think it might be better to step back and cool off" before making changes, Jordan said.

"This bill in my opinion is about personal safety, not courtroom security," said Blue Earth County Attorney Ross Arneson, who also spoke at Thursday's meeting.

Chris Rovney, an assistant Blue Earth County attorney, spoke Thursday about how a man he was prosecuting for drug offenses had plotted to kill him, the judge on the case and the head of the local drug task force.

"Our jobs put us in an elevated zone of danger," he said. "All this bill asks for is parity with the rest of the citizens in the state. ... The law as it is now is, for lack of a better word, discriminatory toward county attorneys."

The bill is supported by the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association and the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, among others.

Both bills likely will head to the House floor soon.

Danielle Nordine reports for Forum Communications Co.