DULUTH – Northeastern Minnesota's Itasca County Board approved a gun-rights resolution at a packed Feb. 21 meeting, where more than 20 people — including the county sheriff — spoke in support of the controversial county measure.
The resolution, which states official opposition to any new laws that would infringe on the Second Amendment rights of the county's citizens, was an addition to the agenda a couple of hours before the meeting began, a legal but unusual move for a lightning-rod topic. Still — and county officials aren't answering how — supporters found out and filled the board room.
A week later the room was packed again, this time with constituents angry about the decision and the opaque way it unfolded — without advance notice to the public. All five county commissioners approved the resolution, which officials say is purely symbolic.
"You knew that was a controversial issue," Grand Rapids resident Michael Albers told the board last week. "Many of the people who talked last week said they were sick and tired of state and federal government shoving stuff down citizens' of Itasca County's throats. You guys chose to do the same thing."
With the DFL in control of state government and eyeing some gun-safety laws, Itasca County is now among 20% of Minnesota counties that have adopted resolutions or laws to impede enforcement of gun-control measures that pro-gun activists deem contrary to the Second Amendment. Some call themselves sanctuaries and pledge to fight new laws in court, while others, like Itasca County's, are symbolic gestures.
Across the country there are hundreds of sanctuary counties and more than a dozen states.
The question is, who gets to create rules about guns? Oregon's state Appeals Court recently ruled that local governments can't declare themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries and stop the enforcement of certain gun laws.
In Minnesota bills are in play to require criminal background checks on all gun sales, to create a red-flag law to temporarily remove access to guns from people in crisis, and one that would require firearms and ammunition to be secured safely in separate places.
That's the bill many of the gun-rights supporters cited at the Itasca County meeting.
The Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus says the movement here is being driven at the local level by citizens pushing their County Boards to pass such resolutions. That's what happened in Itasca County, with a constituent requesting the action a few days before the meeting, said County Administrator Brett Skyles.
"They've been trying to get it on the board agenda for a long time," he said, noting that in 2019 some residents tried for the designation. He said he doesn't know how the Feb. 21 meeting came to be packed with supporters but speculated a lot of phone calls were made by those who wanted it on the agenda.
"But there is no teeth behind it," he said of the resolution. "It's just sending a message."
Supporters at the meeting stated concerns about the bills moving through the Capitol that they feared would strip them of the ability to hunt with grandchildren, defend their homes and protect against "tyrannical" governments.
One even advocated for a separation from the Twin Cities metro area.
"The rest of the state suffers" from the voting practices of the larger population center, said Grand Rapids resident Gabriel Hager. "That should be the next step after this; separating ourselves — a new state."
Not a single person spoke in opposition of the Second Amendment statement.
Republican state Rep. Spencer Igo, who lives in Itasca County and signed a letter in support of the designation along with other Republican legislators from the region, called the bills "out of touch" with the county's 45,000 residents.
"If you're in your house and you have a gun for self defense and you have [that gun] in a safe and your box of 12-gauge shells right next to it, that would mean you're breaking the law," he said. "How do you even begin to enforce legislation like that? If someone is breaking into your house ... what do you tell the person breaking in? Hold on, I need to go to my second safe and get my ammo?"
Igo said the letter he signed was sent the morning of the Feb. 21, meeting, after learning about the request Feb. 20.
Dr. Randy Olson, who has worked in the Grand Itasca hospital emergency room for a decade, spoke at the Feb. 28 meeting, opposing the board's action. He said rural areas like Itasca County have high rates of suicide by firearm, and the gun-reform opposition does nothing to build trust between law enforcement, community leaders and citizens.
"When you are presented with a crisis, the only tool you have is the relationship you've built," he said. "People aren't going to feel as comfortable with this statement out there. It's telling them they care more about guns than people."
Commissioner John Johnson proposed the gun-rights resolution, and while he declined to comment, he said during the Feb. 28 meeting that he didn't doubt the board's move, but he'd "certainly question myself in terms of the actions I choose to take" in the future.
Board Chair Burl Ives, who put the resolution on the agenda at the last minute, didn't respond to an interview request.
Grand Rapids resident and freelance writer Pam Dowell said the "outlandish" board tactic appears to be part of "the playbook" that will likely be used in other rural areas.
"I felt like I was watching a mini-militia mindset forming," she said of the Feb. 21 meeting she watched on TV. "And it's really quite potentially lethal."