Symbolic gun rights vote by Itasca County draws mixed feelings from rural Minnesota

People talk at board meeting02
Supporters of a 2nd Amendment Dedicated County resolution pack a meeting on Feb. 21 for an Itasca County Board of Commissioners work session.
Courtesy of Itasca Community Television (ICTV) video

Last month a standing-room only crowd packed an Itasca County Board of Commissioners work session to urge the board to declare Itasca County a “2nd Amendment Dedicated County” — a symbolic but controversial resolution to uphold county residents' gun rights, and “oppose any infringement on the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms.”

It’s similar to 2nd Amendment “sanctuary” resolutions approved by hundreds of counties around the country in recent years — including several in Minnesota. Those include language declaring they won’t use local resources to enforce laws believed to infringe on the constitutional right to bear arms.

After the resolution was read aloud, Board Chair Burl Ives invited supporters of it to address the board.

One by one, 25 people approached the microphone and adamantly backed the proposal, citing the need to preserve hunting traditions, protect the Constitution, stand up against a “tyrannical” government and push back against gun rights measures under consideration at the state legislature.

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Then Ives invited opponents to speak. “Going once, going twice, I’m going to go three times,” he said.

No one came forward. The board unanimously approved the resolution.

‘No inkling’

Cyndy Martin, chair of Itasca County DFL, was watching from home. She said there was good reason why no opponents spoke at the meeting.

“I had no inkling that was coming up whatsoever,” she said.

The Board added the resolution to its agenda a couple hours before its meeting began. That's legal, and Martin said she has seen the Board add agenda items in the past.

“I've never seen them put something controversial on, though. I was shocked, and disappointed. We deserve a right to have a voice,” Martin said.

A week after Itasca County acted, the Crow Wing County Board passed an identical resolution by a 3-2 vote. Theirs also was not on the published agenda, but was added at the start of the meeting.

“What's going on here is unfair shenanigans,” said Larry Jacobs, a professor of politics and government at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “The way our policy is supposed to work, including at a county level, is there's an agenda, it's widely shared, it allows citizens on either side to come forward and make their case. It's kind of the basic rule of transparency.”

For and against

Itasca County Commissioner John Johnson said several constituents had contacted him ahead of the Feb. 21 meeting, asking the Board to take up the matter.

He said he consulted with Itasca County Sheriff Joe Dasovich. Johnson told the meeting the resolution includes language “in support of our 2nd amendment rights, as well as in support of law-abiding citizens having freedoms relative to firearms.”

Supporters of the resolution at the meeting spoke passionately on its behalf.

Many highlighted the importance of hunting. Terry Hopkins of Grand Rapids said he spent years in the woods with his father and grandfather, and now he’s passing on that tradition to his grandkids. “It’s a very important part of the fabric of Itasca county,” Hopkins said.

Others thanked the Board for standing up on behalf of the Constitution. “I appreciate the fact that all of you and our sheriff are taking steps that should have never been necessary in the first place,” said Renee Kern, Grand Rapids.

Several spoke of the need to have an armed citizenry, in the event it’s needed to stand up against a tyrannical government.

“And what we are seeing coming down at the state and the federal level, we are seeing a tyrannical government,” said Addie Best, Deer River.

Still others, including Gabriel Hager of Grand Rapids, suggested that rural Minnesota should separate from the Twin Cities metro area.

“They’ve got four million people down there voting for Democratic rule, and the rest of us suffer because of it,” Hager said.

Map: Itasca County
Locator map of Itasca County, Minn.
William Lager | MPR News graphic

A second packed house

After that meeting, Martin, the local DFL chair, helped organize people to attend the following week’s Board meeting. That session was also packed, this time with people angry at the Board’s actions.

“You failed me and many other Itasca County citizens with legal deception and lack of transparency,” said Pam Dowell, Grand Rapids.

“Because of the obvious controversial nature [of the resolution], the ethical way of handling it would have been to table it, and notify the public that the resolution would be on the agenda at a future meeting,” said former Grand Rapids city council member Rick Blake.

“It looked like an attempt to avoid an informed public debate on something that we all know is a very divisive and controversial resolution, and a topic that has really very little to do to your work as county,” added Bernadine Joselyn, Grand Rapids.

At the end of the second meeting, several commissioners apologized for their handling of the issue.

"It's a very tough topic,” said Commissioner Casey Venema. “I apologize for how we handled it. I’m sorry. Hopefully over the next four years I can do something to make it up.”

“We could have done better on the transparency piece,” admitted Commissioner Terry Snyder.

But they didn't change their votes.

Four of the five commissioners did not respond to requests for an interview. Commissioner John Johnson, who brought forward the resolution, declined comment.

Potent issue

At the meeting, Johnson said Itasca County is the 21st Minnesota county to pass a 2nd Amendment sanctuary or "dedicated county" resolution.

Many of those were passed during the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.

These new versions are spurred in part by several gun rights bills proposed during the current state legislative session, including red flag legislation and a bill cited by several people at the Itasca County meeting that would require firearms to be stored separately from ammunition.

“As we fight these anti-gun bills at the legislative level, leadership from counties and municipalities asserting themselves in defense of our constitutional rights is especially crucial,” Republican state senators Steve Green and Rob Farnsworth wrote to the Itasca County Board in support of the resolution.

The U of M’s Larry Jacobs said Second Amendment resolutions are strictly symbolic. Counties don't have the power to override state laws.

Last month, an Oregon court ruled that local governments can’t ban law enforcement from enforcing gun laws.

Still, Jacobs said Second Amendment resolutions are a potent political issue, especially in greater Minnesota.

“This is not politics as usual. There’s tremendous intensity and a sense that fundamental rights are being threatened. It's about rallying the base, speaking to the converted.”

Jacobs said he is not in any way minimizing the passion behind these efforts.

“It’s more kind of a reality check,” he said. “Does this go anywhere? Does it have any impact in terms of law? The answer is clearly no at this point.”