RICHMOND Like many other states, Virginia has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars since September 11 installing metal detectors and X-ray machines at its Capitol doors to thwart a terrorist attack, yet ordinary people can bring in guns almost unimpeded.
In Virginia, it’s legal for people never convicted of a felony to discreetly pack heat if they possess a court-issued concealed-weapons permit. If the firearm is in plain view, the permit isn’t necessary.
And that doesn’t change at the portals of the Capitol, where the governor keeps his office and the General Assembly meets every winter.
“If anything, maybe it makes us safer having law-abiding citizens in here who can defend themselves if they have to,” said House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., the state’s most influential lawmaker.
Gun-control groups say it is bad policy to allow weapons in statehouses as the nation struggles to harden its centers of government and finance against terrorist attack.
“This opens a can of worms for law enforcement, for example, who have to guard the capitols, and it is an invitation for accidents to happen or for people to lose their temper with lethal results,” said Nancy Hwa, a spokeswoman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Handgun Violence in Washington.
John Velleco, a lobbyist for Gun Owners of America, said the threat of terrorism is all the more reason to allow law-abiding people to carry guns into capitols.
“The [concealed-weapons permit] holders, they’re not the problem. Studies suggest that people who carry guns are part of the solution to crime problems and terrorists,” Mr. Velleco said. “If you prohibit the good guys from carrying guns, then we’re all sitting ducks.”
Democratic Delegate James F. Almand of Arlington submitted the only bill this year that would outlaw guns in the Capitol. It is unlikely the bill will survive the conservative committee to which it is assigned, and if it does, it faces a full House that is two-thirds Republican, most of whom favor the rights of gun owners.
In legislative elections since 1997, pro-gun groups have given $130,707 to Republican House and Senate candidates and $40,000 to Democrats, according to figures compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.
Last year, House and Senate leaders designated more than $500,000 for new security hardware and law enforcement officers to screen all who enter the Capitol, the General Assembly building and the Virginia Supreme Court.
New guidelines require visitors to the 200-year-old Capitol that Thomas Jefferson originally designed to pass their handbags and briefcases through an X-ray machine and remove anything that might trigger a metal detector cell phones, pagers, keys and guns before walking though and reclaiming the items.
Capitol Police officers at doorways say they occasionally encounter concealed-weapons permit holders who bring their guns. They make sure the permits are valid and match those who carry them, then allow them to go their way.
The officers, who refuse to speak for the record, say they have not encountered anyone carrying a firearm without a permit. They keep no tally of people who bring in guns.
“I think it puts stress on any person, police officer or not, when you bring guns around them and they’re uncertain about the gun owner and why he might have a gun in a particular location,” said Col. George Mason, chief of the Capitol Police.
“Sure, it adds a little more tension, but it’s no more than the larger threat we’re currently working under, the threat of terrorism,” Chief Mason said.