Lawsuit: State Fair must allow people to carry guns

A crowd of people at the fair.
A crowd packs onto the street on the opening day of the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday, Aug 22, 2019.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: 8:55 p.m.

The entity behind the Minnesota State Fair faces a lawsuit over a restriction that bars people from carrying guns on the fairgrounds.

The Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus and two people who want to go to the fair armed filed a lawsuit Tuesday that contends the Minnesota State Agricultural Society lacks the authority to impose the restriction. Ramsey County, whose sheriff is directing fair security this year, is also named as a defendant.

“Minnesota law allows permitted carry even inside the State Capitol—an area more serious than the light-hearted State Fair,” the lawsuit filed in Ramsey County District Court reads. “Plaintiffs wish to exercise their fundamental, constitutionally and statutorily protected right to carry loaded, operable handguns on their person, at the annual Minnesota State Fair, for lawful purposes including immediate self-defense.”

The restriction has been in place for several years. But past enforcement of the policy has been spotty, and the State Fair's plans to put metal detectors at entrances made the legal action more pressing, said Gun Owners Caucus Chairman Bryan Strawser. 

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 “As an arm of state government, the State Agricultural Society and the State Fair are completely preempted from being able to prohibit firearms or interfere with the lawful right of Minnesotans to carry per state statute,” Strawser said.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction that would stop fair security officials from denying entry or detaining permitted gun owners. 

The 2021 State Fair begins on Aug 26.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher’s department took over security at the fair as of this year.

In an interview after the lawsuit became public, Fletcher questioned why he was named as a defendant in the suit, saying the State Fair set admission policies and had hired three security firms and signed a joint powers agreement with the Minnesota State Patrol for gate security. 

His deputies and the officers under his direction would handle policing inside the gates, but the patrol and fair security would decide whether or not to bar armed fairgoers, Fletcher said. 

“We’re always concerned about weapons,” Fletcher said. “But we’re confident we can respond as necessary.” 

He also noted, as has been the case in a number of public gatherings in the last year, that state law does not distinguish between carrying a concealed handgun and open carry of weapons such as assault rifles. 

“One of the interesting areas of law is that if the judge were to rescind [the fair's] policy, not only would people be able to carry concealed handguns, they’d be able to carry long weapons, outwardly exposed long weapons, as well,” Fletcher said.

In a July letter to an attorney for the Gun Owners Caucus, the State Agricultural Society's lawyer defended the restriction.

"The State Agricultural Society has the obligation and the authority to impose rules and policies that prioritize the health and safety of fairgoers," attorney Leah Janus wrote on behalf of the fair. "To that end, the State Agricultural Society has consistently maintained the policy that private citizens may not bring weapons onto the fairgrounds during the fair."

Officials from the Minnesota State Fair said Tuesday they won’t comment on pending litigation, adding, “We will maintain our time-honored Minnesota tradition of peaceful, family-friendly fairs by protecting the safety and security of our guests.”

Rashmi Seneviratne, executive director of Protect Minnesota, a gun safety group, said she’s a gun owner herself, but does not have a permit to carry.

“I understand the right to carry, and I get that. But at the State Fair, people are drinking, and alcohol and guns just do not mix,” Seneviratne said.