- Associated Press - Monday, July 19, 2010

AUSTIN, Texas | Lobbyists, lawyers and journalists are rushing to get permits to carry guns inside the Texas Capitol, where legislators already often tote pistols in boots and purses or stow them 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 guns 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 300 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 firearms, especially before the legislative session begins in January. People aren’t required to have their guns to enter the Capitol through the express lane. Merely presenting a valid permit 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.

Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican who is known to sometimes carry a .380-caliber pistol, vehemently objected to the metal detectors, saying he didn’t want to see airport-style security logjams at a Capitol known for its open and freewheeling culture.

Texas law allows anyone with a permit to carry a weapon 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 X-ray scanners.

The Department of Public Safety, which tracks data on gun permits, said it’s too early to determine whether the number of applications has surged. However, interviews with lobbyists, consultants and state officials show that 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,” he said. “It’s their job. They don’t want to be impeded by visitors on busy days when there’s a lot of tourists.”

Mr. 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 and listened to harrowing 911 calls. To demonstrate the dangers of firearms, the class includes horrifying videos that include a graphic suicide and a shooting in which a man accidentally kills his friend. The students 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 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 [gun permit], then that shows you have gone through a background check and you’ve been vetted, so to speak,” Ms. Wittenburg said. “I don’t think those are the people that are going to cause your problems in the Capitol.”

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