Judge dismisses lawsuit challenging Minnesota State Fair gun ban

Gun rights activists disagree with the ruling and are considering an appeal

By: - August 13, 2022 11:36 am

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair.

A federal judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit brought by gun rights activists challenging the Minnesota State Fair’s ban on guns, ruling the ban does not violate the activists’ Second Amendment rights.

The Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus and pair of gun rights activists — the Rev. Tim Christopher and Sarah Cade Hauptman — filed a lawsuit in 2021 against the State Agricultural Society, which runs the fair.

They argued the gun ban was illegal because of the Second Amendment and a state law that prohibits local jurisdictions from restricting firearms. The fairgrounds are on state property, and the Minnesota State Agricultural Society is a special state entity.

But their arguments did not convince U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim, who wrote that the Agricultural Society has the right to ban guns given its responsibility to protect the safety of visitors.

Although Minnesota law allows permitted gun owners to carry in public — including at the State Capitol — gun restrictions are considered lawful in sensitive places like schools, other government buildings and the state fairgrounds, the judge noted.

“The Fairgrounds are a sensitive location with thousands of people and children present in often crowded conditions. As such, protecting the fairground from gunfire is a compelling interest,” Tunheim wrote.

Tunheim did not issue a decision on if the Agricultural Society’s ban violates the state law prohibiting local jurisdictions from restricting firearms. However, he said the activists did not have the right as private citizens to sue to enforce the law. The activists asked the judge to refer the question to the Minnesota Supreme Court, but he declined.

Tunheim’s ruling, coming less than two weeks before this year’s State Fair begins, is a victory for the Agricultural Society, which said allowing guns inside the fairgrounds would reduce ticket sales in the likelihood that music performers would pull out of the event.

Bryan Strawser, co-founder and chairman of the Gun Owners Caucus, said they are considering an appeal.

“We absolutely believe that people should not be illegally carrying firearms in violation of Minnesota law,” Strawser said. “At the same time, it’s unconscionable for a subdivision of government, like the State Fair, to prevent a law-abiding citizen from exercising their constitutional right to bear arms.”

Strawser said the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, which knocked down New York’s strict restrictions on carrying guns in public, changes the calculus in their case.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority ruled that Americans have a broad right to carry guns outside the home, although it can be restricted in certain places like government buildings and schools.

Strawser says the Supreme Court’s decision sets a higher bar for when governments can restrict people’s right to carry firearms, and that a place being densely populated is not reason enough to designate it a “sensitive location.”

Strawser and the other gun rights activists filed their lawsuit shortly after the fair installed metal detectors in 2020 to more closely screen fairgoers for weapons. This was prompted by shootings near the fairgrounds, including in 2019 when three people were shot just outside the main gates.

The increased violence is also what motivated the activists to sue to carry guns, saying they needed to be armed to protect themselves. Strawser pointed out that this year the State Fair police are struggling to recruit officers and have asked the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office for help.

Both Christopher and Hauptman had previously carried guns inside the fairgrounds, their lawyer said during oral arguments, despite the State Fair long posting signs saying firearms are not permitted. Security guards have conducted bag searches since at least 2016.

After the fair installed metal detectors, Hauptman tried to enter the fairgrounds in 2021 with her firearm but was turned away.

At the time the activists filed their lawsuit, the Agricultural Society didn’t have an ordinance explicitly banning firearms.

While the Agricultural Society then created a rule banning guns, the activists said it was unenforceable and illegal since state law preempts local governments and state agencies from regulating firearms.

The activists first filed the lawsuit in state court but added a claim that it violated their federal civil rights, and so the case was moved to U.S. District Court.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.