Judge plans to decide soon if guns will be allowed inside State Fair

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 2019

Updated: 6:45 p.m.

Ramsey County judge Laura Nelson says she’ll decide before the Minnesota State Fair opens Aug. 26 whether people who have gun permits may carry their firearms onto the Falcon Heights fairgrounds.

In a hearing conducted by telephone Thursday, attorneys representing the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus and the State Agricultural Society, the entity that operates the fair, each presented opposing interpretations of a Minnesota firearms law, and a statute that deals with the State Fair.

The gun owners group filed suit last week on behalf of two plaintiffs, both of whom have permits to carry and say they plan to attend the fair. One is the Reverend Tim Christopher, a pastor at a north Minneapolis church. The other is Sarah Cade Hauptman, 39, of Maplewood.

Hauptman joined other plaintiffs at a news conference outside the fairgrounds last week when the group announced the lawsuit. Hauptman has had her permit for the last eight years, and said carrying a pistol is part of her personal safety plan.

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“The State Fair is a great Minnesota institution. It’s something that’s important to me. And it’s important to me to be able to take care of my safety while I’m there,” Hauptman said.

The State Agricultural Society says allowing guns would put visitors at risk. During a telephone court hearing Thursday, fair attorney Leah Janus said allowing guns at the fair could lead to people openly carrying military-style rifles, something that’s become increasingly common at political demonstrations. Janus said that’s a disturbing trend that the fair wants no part of.

“Ramsey County sheriff’s deputies have submitted affidavits outlining serious safety concerns that would be associated with folks doing open carry on the fairgrounds, causing panic, possibly causing stampedes, possibly causing confusion about an active shooter on the grounds,” Janus said.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit because his office is in charge of security at the fair.

The fair says it has long prohibited guns, and since 2003, it has posted signs to that effect at the gates. This year, fairgoers for the first time will have to pass through metal detectors as part of security screening.

The Gun Owners Caucus argues that the fair never seriously enforced its gun ban, and only made it an official written rule this week.

At the hearing, attorneys drilled down on the Minnesota statutes that govern both gun permits and the State Fair, and whether the fair is an arm of the government.

Scott Flaherty, an attorney for the gun owners group, argues that Minnesota’s Personal Protection Act prohibits state government entities such as the fair from enacting firearms bans.

“We’re seeking nothing more and nothing less than an order requiring defendants to comply with state statute. That’s it,” Flaherty said. “They cannot do what the Legislature has prohibited them from doing, and that includes limiting the exercise of a permit to carry a pistol.”

In court briefs, Flaherty argues that the fair has the power to hire police, enter into joint powers agreements and enact ordinances that carry misdemeanor penalties. And like a city or town, it’s a legal subdivision of the state.

Defense attorney Janus points to a Minnesota law that establishes the Agricultural Society as a public corporation, and says this statute spells out that the fairgrounds are not a political subdivision.

“The legislature’s decision to expressly identify the society as a public corporation but not as a governmental subdivision does not suggest any ambiguity in that classification,” Janus said.

Janus also argued that the plaintiffs don’t have standing to sue in part because they would not suffer legal harm if the State Fair is allowed to ban guns.