As the debate over tighter gun control regulations heats up in Minnesota, a movement among gun rights advocates to designate Second Amendment sanctuary counties is gaining momentum across the state.
Five northwestern Minnesota county boards — Clearwater, Marshall, Red Lake, Roseau and Wadena — have voted to declare their county as a Second Amendment “sanctuary,” or otherwise dedicated to defending gun rights.
Similar efforts have surfaced in at least two dozen other counties, with some expected to vote in coming weeks. The resolutions are similar, with language saying local resources will not be used to enforce laws believed to infringe on the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
Legal experts say the resolutions are symbolic because counties can’t choose not to enforce certain state laws. But in an election year, they are mobilizing rural voters who view gun rights as a critical voting issue.
"I think this is clearly what's driving this concern, among especially people in greater Minnesota, that they need to take some kind of action for protecting what they perceive to be threats to their gun rights,” said David Schultz, a professor of political science and law at the University of Minnesota and Hamline University.
Second Amendment resolutions began in Illinois in response to proposed gun measures, then spread rapidly in other states including Virginia and Colorado. More than 400 communities nationally have now adopted them.
It’s “a pushback to the metro-centric vision for creating additional barriers, additional hurdles for gun owners to jump through in order to exercise their rights without actually having any effect on public safety,” said Rob Doar, political director for the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus.
Those proposals include expanded background checks and red flag laws that let family members or law enforcement petition a judge to temporarily remove guns from someone deemed a risk to themselves or others. The DFL-led Minnesota House passed both measures last week, although they are all but certain to fail in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Polls show most Americans support red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders. But they spark fierce opposition from advocates of gun rights who see them as government overreach.
The debate is on the ground now in Crow Wing County.
Michael Starry of Ironton, who is helping organize an effort to declare Crow Wing a Second Amendment “dedicated” county, sees red flag laws as an attack on constitutional rights.
“They come and take your personal property, and then you have to spend thousands of dollars and countless man hours proving your innocence for a charge filed by somebody you never get to know,” Starry said.
In Mille Lacs County, Josh Bretzman, who grew up with family traditions of hunting and sport shooting, launched a Facebook group to press county leaders for a Second Amendment sanctuary designation. It quickly grew to more than 1,700 members.
“They want to stop criminals, and I’m OK with that,” said Bretzman, who said he’s been following the debate in Minnesota and nationally over tighter gun restrictions. “But criminals acquire these firearms illegally. It’s not stopping them. It’s hindering us, the people who are stand-up citizens in the community.”
He said he got involved after "some buddies and I were talking, and then instead of talking, we decided to act.”
The idea for the resolutions was inspired by so-called sanctuary cities that have limited their cooperation with federal enforcement of certain immigration laws.
But whether a county can simply decide it's not going to enforce a state law seems unlikely. Schultz, the U of M law professor, said the resolutions are legally meaningless, because states have broad authority over local governments.
"If the focus of declaring yourself to be a sanctuary county is to try to insulate yourself against state gun regulation, that will largely fail,” Schultz said.
Jim Hofer was the only Wadena County commissioner to vote against that county’s Second Amendment resolution. He said regardless of his views on gun control, "I just believed that asking a county to ignore whatever laws are passed at the state and federal level violated my oath of office."
At Bill’s Gun Shop and Range last week in Baxter, Minn., Wadena County residents David and Diane Johnston were practicing shooting the handguns they own for self-defense.
While he opposed new gun regulations — "It's a foot in the door for, take away your rights.” — David Johnston said the Second Amendment already guarantees those rights, and he doesn't think a sanctuary resolution should be needed.
The Minnesota County Attorneys Association is expected in the next few weeks to take a position on the Second Amendment resolutions.
Regardless of how that group sees them, some advocates say the measures send an important message to St. Paul that Minnesotans outside the Twin Cities metro area are fed up with efforts to restrict guns.
"As more and more counties get on board with this, you're showing at the state level that the citizens of this state don't want these gun laws,” said Seth Borg of Isle, Minn., who supports the Mille Lacs County resolution. “They don't want the infringements on our rights."