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Published January 26, 2012, 10:21 PM

New Minnesota bill aims to protect prosecutors

Moorhead, MN (WDAY TV) - It is a controversy sparking concern: Should county prosecutors be allowed to carry guns in courthouses? Minnesota lawmakers just passed that proposal, but the draft is dividing defenders.

By: Travis Skonseng, WDAY

It is a controversy sparking concern: Should county prosecutors be allowed to carry guns in courthouses? Minnesota lawmakers just passed that proposal, but the draft is dividing defenders.

The House Public Safety Committee vote comes a month after the courthouse shooting in Cook County. A man being prosecuted shot the prosecutor.

Michelle Winkis Lawson – Interim Clay County Attorney: “We take great lengths to keep guns out of the courthouse.”

But in a matter of months, that could change. It may become legal for lawyers to actually carry firearms at work.

Michelle Winkis Lawson: “We have a dangerous job.”

At least county attorneys, like Michelle Winkis Lawson. Minnesota lawmakers are mulling that measure, a controversial change to law.

Michelle Winkis Lawson: “I think it's aimed at the type of offender. No system is infallible.”

Right now, prosecutors are prohibited from having weapons at work, but recent attacks on attorneys are increasing safety concerns. Former Clay County attorney, Ken Kohler, can relate.

Ken Kohler – Defense Attorney: “I did carry a weapon during those periods of time when I was off duty.”

Kohler is now a defense attorney, but was threatened during a family fight years ago. He's against allowing more guns to be brought into the courtroom.

Ken Kohler: “I certainly don't want to if I'm ever attacked have to worry about someone taking a weapon away from me and using it on someone else.”

Kohler worries the law would lead to more problems than good. He says security should be left in the hands of trained law enforcement.

Ken Kohler: “They're very capable in handling pretty much anything that comes down the road and protecting me as well as the other people in the court system.”

Court colleagues admit to feeling frightened by defendants. They understand the need for a change in law.

Michelle Winkis Lawson: “If I was county attorney or assistant county attorney working in a non-secure courthouse and I had the appropriate permits to carry a done and I knew how to use a gun, I'd probably want one at work.”

The bill doesn't require additional training. Another proposal passed, enhances criminal penalties for assaulting or killing a prosecutor. Both bills are likely headed to a full House vote for a floor vote.

Unlike many cash strapped counties across Minnesota, Clay County has a secure courthouse. Protection has upgraded the past 2 decades. Now, everyone walks through a metal detector.

Trained officers inspect purses with a wand or x-ray machine to make sure no weapons are being brought in through the building's only entrance. Guns have not been a problem, but pocket knives and pepper spray have. The sheriff says he understands the concern attorneys have.

Bill Bergquist – Clay County Sheriff: “When you have a full secure courthouse, you feel a little safer inside but they do understand that when they're out in the public too you know people recognize them.

You can be charged for carrying a dangerous weapon into the courthouse.

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