ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Less than two months after a Minnesota prosecutor was shot by a defendant in a Grand Marais courthouse, a legislative committee advanced two bills designed to beef up security for county attorneys, including one that would let prosecutors carry guns.
The star witness at Thursday's House public safety committee hearing was Tim Scannell, the Cook County attorney who was shot three times Dec. 15 by the man he had just successfully prosecuted in a criminal sexual conduct case. Scannell showed no outward sign of his injuries as he took his seat to address the committee.
"When you attack a prosecutor, you are not just attacking an ordinary citizen," Scannell testified. "You are making a political statement that the charges against you are, that the crime the state believes you have committed, should somehow be nullified. I think that's what occurred in my situation."
Scannell testified only on behalf of a bill that would enhance criminal penalties for assaulting or killing a prosecutor, allowing a defendant to be charged with first-degree murder.
Of the gun bill, Scannell said he was "not a gun person" and was unlikely to carry one if it becomes law. But he said he supports the legislation, which would exempt county attorneys from a statute that prohibits local government employees from carrying firearms.
"I don't particularly like the idea that local government officials can't carry weapons when other citizens can," he said.
The chief sponsor of the bills, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, brought in several other attorneys to testify in favor of the firearms bill.
Chris Rovney, an assistant county attorney in Blue Earth County, recalled an incident with a drug dealer he was prosecuting who had conspired to shoot and kill him.
"We're not asking for any greater rights than any other citizen in the state of Minnesota has," Rovney said. Later, he added: "By virtue of what we do for a living, we're put in an elevated zone of danger."
Several committee members, including Rep. Linda Slocum, DFL-Richfield, said they were concerned the bill would create confusion about bringing a gun into a courthouse and into the courtroom itself, where judicial order prohibits firearms.
Heather Martens, whose group Protect Minnesota works to stem gun violence, also worried that bill's language did not explicitly say whether county attorneys would be allowed to carry guns into courtrooms.
Cornish explained that the bill would not affect the no-guns rule in courtrooms, and that courthouses would decide individually where else within the courthouse guns would be allowed.
Martens also said that pistol-packing prosecutors could offer a target for defendants desperate enough to grab for their weapon.
"Sometimes it happens that someone loses control of their gun, guns have been grabbed away from bailiffs," Martens said in an interview after testimony. "The prosecutor is going to be a lot more distracted in the courtroom than the bailiff."
Committee members later said they interpreted the bill as not allowing for guns in courtrooms and passed the bill without amendment to clarify language.
Cornish said he expects both bills to head to the full House for a floor vote.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.