Gun Permit Allows Quick Access to Texas Capitol
July 19, 2010 - 11:52 AMEveryone from lobbyists to lawyers and journalists is rushing to get permits to carry guns inside the Texas Capitol, where legislators already often tote pistols in boots and purses or stow them away inside their desks.
A unique loophole in a new security procedure means a gun permit is like a special-access pass into the domed building, allowing people who are certified to carry a gun to bypass lines at the metal detectors that were set up after a shooting incident earlier this year.
"Nobody wants to be the one standing in line behind three hundred kids wearing the same colored T-shirt," said University of Texas political scientist Jim Henson. "If you're trying to get in and out really quick and there's going to be choke points, well, people don't want to have to deal with that."
There's now a frenzy for folks to get trained and licensed to carry a firearm, especially before the legislative session begins in January. It's not required that people have a gun to enter the Capitol through the express lane. Merely holding a valid permit, and presenting it at the entrance, will get them expedited entry.
"Everybody is doing it or is planning to do it," said lobbyist Bill Miller, who has taken the required training and is waiting for his license to arrive in the mail.
The metal detectors were installed at the Capitol's four public entrances in May, a few months after a man fired off a few rounds outside the doors of the main entrance. No one was harmed.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who is known to sometimes carry a .380 caliber pistol, vehemently objected to the metal detectors, saying he didn't want to see airport-like security logjams at a Capitol known for its open and freewheeling culture.
Texas law allows people to carry a weapon if they have a permit and as long as the gun is concealed. A separate lane for license-holders had to be created so gun-toters could enter without having to pull out their weapons - or unconceal them - along with their wallets and keys.
Guns were previously allowed in the Capitol. With the arrival of the metal detectors, permit-holders now get their licenses scanned to make sure they are in good standing and their bags are put through an X-ray scanner.
The Department of Public Safety, which tracks data on gun permits, said it's too early to tell if there has been a surge in applications. However, interviews with lobbyists, consultants, and state officials show Capitol insiders are flocking to sign up for them.
It's all been great for business, said Mike Cox, who has become the go-to guy to train political insiders on getting their gun permits.
"There's been a burst of interest. They want to get that express tag to gain entrance to the Capitol," Cox said. "It's their job. They don't want to be impeded by visitors on busy days when there's a lot of tourists."
Cox has a shooting range just south of Austin, and lobbyists and others in the political in-crowd take his 10-hour class.
The students learned about nonviolent resolution techniques, listened to harrowing 911 calls and, to demonstrate the dangers of a firearm, horrifying videos are shown that include a graphic suicide and one in which a man accidentally kills his friend. They also have to pass a written test on the course material and then must undergo a background check, pay about $260 or so in fees, and get fingerprinted.
That lawmakers would take the trouble to install magnetometers and then allow weapons inside has drawn criticism from gun-control advocates, including the Brady Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which called the policy "ludicrous." Some tourists also were perplexed by the new procedures.
"Where's the security come from if you can still get in with a gun?" asked Canadian tourist Clyde Ducharme, who went through the metal detectors one recent morning.
Lobbyist Michelle Wittenburg, who recently received her gun permit and has been signing up her colleagues so they can do the same, said the security at the Capitol is still strong because permit-holders aren't the ones who would pose any threat.
"If you do have a CHL (gun permit) then that shows you have gone through a background check and you've been vetted, so to speak," Wittenburg said. "I don't think those are the people that are going to cause your problems in the Capitol."
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