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Woman wears gun in holster to church

She drives away and is stopped and ticketed by police

July 8, 2010

A Unitarian Universalist church might well be the last place you'd expect to find someone wearing a gun.

Maybe that's why Krysta Sutterfield chose the Unitarian church in Brookfield for an open-carry demonstration on Sunday. If she wanted to bring attention to the gun rights debate, she surely succeeded, though she probably didn't plan on getting arrested in the process.

Brookfield police said Thursday they were called to the church at 13001 W. North Ave. about 10:30 a.m. by a church staffer who said a woman was wearing a handgun in a hip holster. By the time three squad cars arrived, Sutterfield was driving away. She was stopped, and police found the loaded 9mm gun in a zipped case on the passenger seat.

She was handcuffed, taken to the police station, processed and ticketed for having the loaded gun in her car - a state forfeiture citation, not a criminal offense. Sutterfield was then released.

She was not ticketed for openly carrying the weapon into the church, which did not have signs prohibiting firearms.

"We've referred the case to the district attorney," Police Capt. Phil Horter said.

Sutterfield, 41, of Milwaukee, referred questions Thursday to her attorney, Rebecca Coffee, who said she couldn't comment on her client's intentions or actions Sunday.

Caryl Sewel, president of the congregation at Unitarian Universalist Church West, said Sutterfield may have attended a service before but was not a registered member of the church. Because of the Fourth of July holiday, Sunday's service was lightly attended, Sewel said, and a guest minister was speaking about civil rights.

Sewel said that Sutterfield's gun was clearly visible on her hip, but that she didn't ever remove it from its holster or do anything overtly threatening. Still, it concerned Sewell.

"I didn't feel comfortable asking her why she was wearing the gun," Sewel said. "Truthfully, we found it very intimidating," especially in light of the 2005 shootings at a church service at a Brookfield hotel that left eight people dead, and a 2008 shooting at a Unitarian church in Tennessee that killed two people.

But Sewel said other members did ask Sutterfield, and she replied she was expressing her 2nd Amendment rights.

Sewel said other staff called the administrative line of the Brookfield Police Department for clarification about the legality, and the officers responded in force with at least three squad cars. She said she didn't think that was an overreaction, again because of the memories of the 2005 shootings.

The church will probably now post a sign banning guns, Sewel said, but it has no grudge against Sutterfield.

"We'd be happy to have her come back," Sewel said. "Just don't bring a gun."

Gun rights advocates are riding some momentum lately. Last year, state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen advised law enforcement that open-carry was not, in itself, a basis for a charge of disorderly conduct. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the 2nd Amendment right of most individuals to possess firearms applies to the states, and within a day, one Wisconsin district attorney said he would no longer prosecute cases of concealed carry or transporting uncased or loaded guns in vehicles. A challenge to Wisconsin law banning guns within 1,000 feet of a school is pending in federal court.

Nik Clark, president of Wisconsin Carry Inc., called the state "behind the times" for prohibiting transport of loaded guns, which most states allow.

"Wisconsin Carry advocates that people follow all Wisconsin firearm regulations, even those we find patently unconstitutional, until such time as we are able to change those laws through legal challenges and/or legislative changes," Clark said.

Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, disagrees with the basic open-carry tenet that armed law-abiding people deter criminals.

"When people make a decision to carry a gun or that a gun will keep them safer, they have the opportunity to analyze risks and benefits. They get to decide," she Bonavia said. "But when they bring it into public, they're forcing their analysis on all of us."

Broad research shows, she said, that "guns, overall, do not promote public or personal safety."

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