Metal detectors won’t stop gun toters at Texas Capitol; visitors with permits avoid scanners

By Jay Root, AP
Friday, May 21, 2010

Have gun, will travel into the Texas state capital

AUSTIN, Texas — With security concerns on the rise, metal detectors finally were installed and turned on at the Texas Capitol Friday. But citizens, lobbyists and other visitors can escape the lines — if they carry a concealed handgun.

In the building where the conceal-and-carry law was written, visitors are not only allowed to pack heat. Under the new security procedures, there’s now practically an incentive to be armed — or at least to hold the license for it.

Officials are creating one line for the masses, one line for lawmakers and their staffs and then a separate procedure for concealed handgun license holders. The general public has to get scanned at the entrances. State officials and gun toting citizenry do not.

For frequent visitors of the capitol, including lobbyists, journalists and political activists, getting the permit just to get in faster is becoming an alternative to waiting behind tourists.

“I’m thinking about it,” said lobbyist Bill Miller, who spends most of his life walking in, out and around the capitol when the Legislature is in session. “I mean, I don’t want to wait in line. If that’s the way you do the deal, I’ll be happy to get the permit. I won’t be carrying any weapons.”

The Texas Department of Public Safety said it was too early to determine whether there’s a rush on permit applications but otherwise reported a smooth transition toward a security measure that Gov. Rick Perry — who often carries a laser-sited .380 — tried to stop but couldn’t.

Perry was outvoted by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, fellow Republicans who cited credible security threats in approving the installation of the machines. One security threat surfaced in January, when state troopers disarmed a man after he fired several shots outside the capitol. No one was harmed, but officials mentioned it in April when the new security measures were approved.

That lawmakers would take the trouble to install magnetometers and then allow weapons inside has struck the gun control lobby as a dangerous idea in a state that doesn’t mind testing the limits of its lock-and-load culture.

“If you’re planning on perpetrating something in the state capitol, you should simply get a concealed handgun license and show your gun on the way in,” said Peter Hamm, spokesman for the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “It’s just ludicrous.”

Still, there never was much doubt that concealed weapons holders, who have to undergo background checks and training, would be allowed into the capitol. They have been let in since the law was adopted in 1995. Today, Texas legislators routinely carry guns in their boots and purses, or stow them in their desks inside the House and Senate chambers.

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who authored the gun law as a state senator, recalls fighting off attempts to exempt the state capitol from the list of buildings where guns are automatically banned.

Patterson, a Republican who carries a five-shot .22 caliber Derringer, said lawmakers have no business giving citizens the right to carry and then turn around and say “but not here, not around us.”

Even proponents of the new security procedures say they wish there was a way to beef up security without watering down a cherished freedom — the right to walk in and out the capitol without being frisked, scanned or checked out.

Though the state has opened up an express lane for gun-packing visitors, the permit holders still have to show their licenses and undergo an electronic check to ensure they are in good standing. That also takes time, though officials couldn’t say how much.

Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who is helping oversee the new security procedures, said officials are studying ways to make the building more easily accessible to frequent visitors ahead of the next session, which begins in January. In the meantime, he says the metal detectors, even in the cradle of Texas government, are here to stay.

“If somebody wants to kill one of us they’re going to kill us, but I think it’s necessary to prevent someone from coming in and doing harm to a large group of people, whether by a bomb in a backpack or automatic weapons in the rotunda or gallery,” Geren said. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Do I like it? No. Not one bit.”

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