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David Hanners, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published February 18 2014

Minnesota police group sues NFL over no-handgun policy

MINNEAPOLIS – The state’s largest police group and its largest police union are suing the NFL and the Vikings, claiming the league’s new policy barring off-duty cops from taking their guns to games is illegal.

The Minnesota law that allows businesses to bar weapons specifically exempts people who are an “active licensed peace officer,” and state law trumps NFL rules, the suit says.

But the National Football League says that it doesn’t, and that the law doesn’t apply to it. Although an NFL spokesman declined comment on the suit, when police officials complained about the new policy last fall, the league’s security chief replied that a ticket to a game is a license that teams can revoke whenever they want – and being an off-duty cop with a gun is reason enough to revoke it.

The NFL said that between on-duty officers assigned to games and rent-a-cops, there are enough guns inside NFL stadiums, and the league worries about “blue-on-blue” shootings.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Hennepin County District Court by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. The latter is the bargaining unit that has 900 members.

Defendants are the NFL, the Vikings and the regents of the University of Minnesota. The Vikings will play the next couple of seasons at the university’s TCF Bank Stadium while their new arena is being built on the site of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

Officials with the Vikings did not return a call seeking comment. Chuck Tombarge, director of public relations for the university, said the school’s general counsel, William Donohue, had not yet seen the suit and therefore could not speak about it.

Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the statewide peace officers association, said they sued because “the Vikings cannot be allowed to, in essence, thumb their nose at Minnesota law.”

“The NFL or a private entity has no authority to supersede state law,” said Flaherty, whose group represents 8,500 peace officers. “The Minnesota Legislature has dealt with this specifically and given peace officers authority to carry or possess weapons even where they may be otherwise banned.”

At issue is a subdivision of Minnesota’s statute governing where people can carry guns if they have a permit. A subdivision of the law allows business owners to ban guns in their premises if they post signs or orally tell people guns are prohibited.

The signs must have the business’s name and say “… BANS GUNS IN THESE PREMISES.”

But a paragraph of the subdivision says the law doesn’t apply to “an active licensed peace officer” or a security guard “acting in the course and scope of employment.”

The NFL adopted its new policy last fall and sent a letter to the clubs Sept. 11. The policy said guns were “strictly prohibited” within NFL facilities; the only exceptions were law enforcement personnel assigned to games (“We strongly recommend that such personnel be in uniform,” the policy said) and private security contractors who were licensed to carry a gun.

People or clubs who violated the policy could be fined, suspended or fired, the policy said.

In October, after learning of the new policy, Flaherty wrote to Jeffrey Miller, an NFL vice president and its chief of security. Flaherty noted that some departments “require off-duty officers be able to enforce the law and to react to crimes committed in their presence,” and that the “safety of officers and the public requires that the officer be armed,” the suit says.

Miller wrote back Oct. 29. He said that while he had “the highest level of respect for people in law enforcement,” the NFL decided football stadiums weren’t safe when off-duty cops had guns.

“(T)he NFL believes the safest environment for all fans is achieved by limiting the number of firearms and weapons inside stadiums to those required by officers that perform specifically assigned law enforcement working functions and game day duties,” Miller wrote.

He said the on-duty officers at the games “are specially trained and required to participate in weekly meetings pertaining to pre-game day and game day security and law enforcement planning, strategy, and emergency response procedures and protocols.”

Off-duty officers, he wrote, “attend games as spectators. They are unknown to working law enforcement officers. They may not have the same training and do not participate in the weekly preparation meetings.”

Miller told Flaherty that when off-duty cops bring guns to games, they “increase the potential for ‘blue-on-blue’ response confrontations.”

Miller also said off-duty officers may booze it up while watching the game.

In his letter to Flaherty, Miller said he’s aware of Minnesota’s statute involving concealed weapons, but maintained it doesn’t apply to the NFL. The reason: You can only get into a game with a ticket, and the ticket “constitutes a license that reserves to the licensor, in this case the Minnesota Vikings, discretion to deny admission to any ticketholder (except on grounds that would violate anti-discrimination or similar statutes).”

“The NFL believes the policy enhances public safety for fans as well as for law enforcement personnel working or attending NFL games off-duty,” Miller told Flaherty.

In an interview, Flaherty said police officers are the ones wanting to be able to carry weapons into sporting events while off duty.

“It’s up to an officer whether they want to carry a weapon while off duty,” he said. “A good share of them do, simply for the reason they’d be able to respond to a police matter that they may witness, and some for their own self-protection.”

He also said he didn’t know of any problems caused by off-duty officers who carried weapons into the Metrodome over the 31 years the Vikings played there.

“I am not aware of any incident there has ever been around or in the Metrodome involving any kind of problem with an officer – on or off duty – and a firearm,” he said.

“We’re not clear why they feel the need to do this,” he said of the NFL and its new policy.

The Vikings played their first game in the Metrodome in 1982. The dome is being torn down, with a new $975 million stadium being erected in its place.


The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.