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House bill would make churches, concerts, parks and more legal places to possess a firearm

BISMARCK – Gun rights advocates clashed with the medical, hospitality and religious sectors on Thursday over a bill that would allow concealed weapons in churches and forbid doctors from asking patients if they own firearms.

House Bill 1241 would remove churches, political functions, music concerts and public parks from the list of public gathering places where possessing a firearm or dangerous weapon is currently a Class B misdemeanor under state law.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, said the state gives people permission to carry concealed firearms, “but we don’t trust those people to be responsible with firearms in certain locations.”

“It’s really hard to know where you can go anymore … so you find yourself a criminal by default almost,” he testified before the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

But it was the bill’s section that would prohibit medical workers from inquiring about a patient’s firearms ownership that drew the most opposition.

Dr. Andy McLean, medical director for the North Dakota Department of Human Services, said psychiatrists need to ask about firearms when trying to ascertain the risk of suicide or homicide in someone already identified as high-risk.

Not asking about firearms also sets up a physician for malpractice while violating their First Amendment right to free speech, North Dakota Medical Association Executive Director Courtney Koebele said, calling the provision “a clear interference with the patient-physician relationship.”

Dr. Gabriela Balf said her first patient as a family doctor practicing in Connecticut was a young man who shot himself within a month of their first appointment. Balf, now chair of the psychiatry department at Sanford Health in Bismarck, said asking about firearms is in line with national guidelines, “not doctors in North Dakota being nosy.”

“I cannot imagine a situation where I could not ask that,” she said, adding that if the provision passes, “I will be an infractor.”

The lone person to testify against allowing concealed weapons license holders to carry in church reminded committee members that a law passed in 2013 already allows church members to grant such permission, as long as law enforcement is notified. But some churches have a long history of opposition to firearms, and the proposed change could violate their religious freedom, said Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference.

“I think this current law strikes a good balance,” he said.

The North Dakota Hospitality Association opposed a different section of the bill that would allow permit holders to carry concealed weapons in a liquor establishment or the 21-and-over area of restaurants as long as the person isn’t drinking alcohol. Executive Director Rudie Martinson said it creates potential safety issues for customers and employees and concerns about liability and insurability.

“In short, guns and alcohol don’t mix,” he said.

The bill also would repeal a section of state law that forbids carrying a loaded firearm in a car while hunting; remove the state registration requirement for machine guns, fully automatic rifles, bombs and other federally licensed firearms; and allow hunters to use short-barreled rifles.

Paul Hammers, a municipal court judge in Napoleon and concealed weapons permit test administrator, testified in support of the bill, saying it answers questions he often hears in class.

“It’s important that we clarify where people can and can’t carry,” he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.