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Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications, Published December 20 2012

Pistol-packing Grand Forks mayor says he refuses to be a victim

GRAND FORKS – The Connecticut school shooting that killed 27 is one reason Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown packs heat.

Not many know it, but the part-time mayor and full-time obstetrician at Altru Hospital has a permit to carry a concealed handgun and he does, sometimes at local restaurants or even at an occasional city meeting.

Recently, a Herald journalist spotted Brown’s gun during an interview.

“I don’t want to be a victim,” said Brown, 61. “And I think it’s the responsible thing to do to protect those you love, and anyone.”

The handgun he carries concealed is a small 9 mm Kahr semi-automatic that takes up little space. For safety, he does not keep a round in the chamber.

“The Second Amendment protects the First Amendment,” Brown said. “But deadly force is only to protect life. To use it to protect property would be inappropriate.”

NRA member

An Air Force veteran, Brown said he is a lifetime “patron” National Rifle Association member, a top-tier form of membership, and loves to target shoot his many handguns and rifles at local gun clubs.

“I’ve been into shooting sports since I was 6,” said the mayor, who is in his 10th year in office. “It’s something fathers, parents, pass on to their children.” He taught his son and daughter – now in their 20s – to safely handle and shoot guns.

“My father had a gun rack in the bedroom,” he said. “We didn’t mess with them. They are not toys. You always treat every gun like it’s loaded.”

He’s a good customer at local sports stores that sell guns and loves just admiring them.

“I have two or three .223s,” he said, of the M16-based military-style rifles so popular with hunters and sport shooters, as well as criminals such as the man who used such a gun to kill 20 elementary school children and seven adults last week in Newtown, Conn.

It appears the Connecticut shooting had more to do with mental health issues than with something that would be solved by more gun control laws, Brown said.

Background checks only make sense and he faced much more stringent ones in the military, he said.

Missileer training

His father was a career airman, after serving as an Army cook in World War II, where he met Brown’s mother. Brown grew up all over the nation and graduated from high school in Japan.

His four years as a missile launch officer, then six years as a physician in the Air Force gave him the discipline and training needed to handle guns safely and well, Brown said.

Being a missile launch officer meant carrying a sidearm at all times and being psychologically prepared to use it to kill, he said.

It was the Cold War protocol of national security involving nuclear weapons, he said.

“If I opened my launch-control door and someone was there that did not have permission to be there, I would have to shoot them,” he said. “They would have hung me if I didn’t. Your job is to protect the security of the nation.”

But Brown also just loves shooting guns for the sport of it, more than a hobby such as golf.

He loved winning top shooting medals in the military, even as a doctor, and still loves shooting at targets at local gun-club ranges.

“It’s like yoga,” he said. “While you shoot, you have to relax. You can’t describe it, it’s an inner peace. There is a satisfaction to that.”

Regionwide rush

Brown is not the only one into carrying guns.

Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost is in charge locally of approving concealed carry permits.

On Tuesday, 15 applications came in, he said. “Usually we have five or six a week.”

Similar stories have come in across the region since the Connecticut shooting.

In Cass County, which includes Fargo, the number of licenses issued went from 681 in 2011 to 981 so far this year. In Clay County, which includes Moorhead, the number went from 115 in 2011 to 235 so far this year.

In Roseau County, Minn., applications for permits to purchase a handgun are “up a lot,” said Tara Halvorson, civil process clerk for the county. “I mailed out eight of them today.”

She’s heard from her counterparts in Hennepin and Lake of the Woods counties that similar increases are being seen. In Minnesota, there are permits required simply to buy a handgun, and also to carry one.

Sheriff Rost said he ends up rejecting four or five applications per year; Minnesota law enforcement officers probably reject fewer because their state law allows less flexibility.

Well-known at city

Brown says many in city government know he has a concealed-carry permit, but that the subject hasn’t been discussed much.

“I know he’s a gun guy, but I didn’t know he had a concealed carry permit,” said Council member Terry Bjerke. “I’m all for it. The more law-abiding citizens who conceal carry, the better off we are.”

Bjerke, in fact, says he’s pretty much decided he, too, will finally apply for a concealed carry permit. “For personal protection, Second Amendment rights.”

Like Brown, Bjerke said he is an Air Force veteran who worked security at missile sites in North Dakota, and says training is important for anyone owning and using a gun.

Other council members and city officials indicated they knew about the mayor carrying a gun at times and saw it as no big deal.

Brown said he keeps up on state and federal laws, and also has permits from Minnesota and Utah because the reciprocities involved allow him to carry a gun across the country. He and his wife have a condo on Marco Island, Fla., where he also carries a gun at times.

“Delta (Air Lines) is great,” he said, because he just notifies them in advance and he has no problem taking a gun along on a flight.

Protecting family

His wife, Dr. Ann Brown, is a pathologist at Altru and did get concealed carry permit with him years ago, when the testing still required score-keeping shooting sessions.

“She always reminded me that she scored higher than I did,” he said.

Brown cites a shocking crime in Grand Forks: the March 2004 attack by Kevin Deon Moore on his wife who was working in the kitchen at Applebee’s, stabbing her several times.

“If I was in a situation like that, I would want to be able to do something,” Brown said.

In that case, other employees held Moore down until police arrived; a year later he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for attempted murder. His now-ex-wife recovered.

Brown said he only “used” his privately owned gun once. While in college at Baylor University in Texas in the early 1970s, he was accosted at a gas station by a group of young men.

“I had a handgun in the back seat and I just reached back and put it up on the dash,” he said. “They saw it and said, ‘We were just funning with you’ and took off.”

But it’s knowing he has the means to protect his family or others that makes it worth the $25 permit every three years, he said.

“I think you’re entitled to defend your family,” he said. “I have no qualms about that.”

Lee is a writer with the Grand Forks Herald