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Lawmakers divided over metal detectors at the Capitol

Web Posted: 05/07/2007 11:00 PM CDT

Gary Scharrer
Austin bureau

AUSTIN â€" Sen. Carlos Uresti, a former Marine, feels more comfortable on the Texas Senate floor these days, knowing that some wacko with a high-powered rifle in the gallery up above doesn't have him in crosshairs.
The Senate recently installed metal detectors at the entrance to the public gallery. State representatives are thinking about doing the same for the House gallery soon. And metal detectors eventually could guard all entrances to the Capitol as part of a new complex-wide security plan.

The Senate wants to secure the entire building, but the House has not yet agreed to install metal detectors at each entrance.

Requiring everyone to pass through the devices before entering the Capitol, some say, would create long lines, especially with hundreds of schoolchildren visiting almost daily. But others contend that violence is a reality of modern society, and more security is necessary at such a high profile place as the Texas Capitol.

"It's the Senate's desire to secure the whole Capitol, and we can't do that without the House's cooperation," said Senate Administration Chairman Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth.

"The committee feels that this is the appropriate time to consider Capitol security in light of current world conditions," Brimer wrote recently to House Administration Chairman Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas. "It is our hope that the House feels the same about the importance of Capitol security."

The House is not necessarily opposed to the idea but "at this point in time we don't feel that it's necessary," Goolsby said. "We haven't had a demand for it."

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, has seen dramatic changes in both society and the legislative process since he arrived in the Capitol as a young state representative in 1973.

"Times were more calm. There was no partisanship. That made for safer times," Whitmire said. "Up here we have many more emotional, divisive issues than we had then. We certainly have more interest groups, pressure groups and outside influences that tend to be more extreme than they were 34 years ago."

And the Internet allows groups to fan those passions with real-time speed.

Uresti, a San Antonio Democrat, said lawmakers must take security seriously without discouraging anyone from watching or participating in the democratic process.

"But would you allow them to take a gun or a weapon into the gallery?" Uresti asked.

Gov. Rick Perry would.

"The governor believes if a Texan is properly licensed and permitted they should have the ability to exercise their second amendment rights in their state Capitol," Perry spokesman Robert Black said.

"Remember, the reason we only have a legislative session once every two years is not because legislators should fear the people, but because people should fear the Legislature."

Uresti said he feels more secure since metal detectors were installed outside the Senate gallery last month.

"The senators are conducting business. We're not looking up in the gallery," he said. "Unfortunately, there are people out there who don't admire us and are upset and become very passionate over a bill or for whatever reason."

Metal detectors at Capitol entrances should be installed before a tragic event dictates their placement, Whitmire said. He speculated that visitors would accept the inconvenience: "Quite often, the public is ahead of the legislators."

Julie Wood, an elementary school teacher in the Houston area Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, predicted metal detectors at all Capitol entrances would create long lines.

"But in the long run ... most people would be in favor of it because of the times that we live in," she said during a recent Capitol visit with students. "There's just so much violence now, and we don't know from one day to the next what's going to happen. It may be worth the wait for safety."

Later this year, new security measures outside the Capitol will limit all vehicle traffic to a single drivewayâ€" at the northern entrance â€" with automatic devices installed at other exits that prohibit entry to the complex.

The Texas Preservation Board, of which Brimer is a member, recently concluded that the era of terrorism justifies enhanced security.

"It's the sign of the times," Brimer said.
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