- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginians can carry firearms to many city swimming pools, tennis courts and afterschool centers under gun protections okayed by state lawmakers and their governor in 2014. Now those officials in the gun-friendly state are debating whether to ratchet up security at their own Capitol.

At the gold-domed Capitol in Charleston, there are no metal detectors to walk through at the building’s numerous, spread-out entrances or doors to legislative chambers. There aren’t any X-ray machines to scan packages. Visitors generally come and go freely to the Capitol building - though guns are generally illegal on the stately tree-lined grounds.

Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, called it “ridiculous in these days and times” that Capitol security is laxer than at surrounding state buildings in the complex fronting the Kanawha River in Charleston. He said lawmakers should consider metal detectors or other security controls.

“I feel responsible for the safety of everybody,” said Cole, a Republican candidate for governor. “It isn’t just me, or him. It’s the staff. There’s no question: a little bit of prevention.”

Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he’s leaning toward enhanced security as lawmakers and the administration’s public safety arm continue meetings to discuss options. Cole said any changes they approve should be in place before the Legislature convenes in January.

Cole cited violent attacks at government buildings, including last October’s attack in which a gunman killed a soldier at Canada’s war memorial in Ottawa before storming Parliament and being shot to death. In 2007 a state trooper in Colorado shot dead a man who carried a handgun into that Capitol declaring “I am the emperor.” At the time, no guards stood at the Colorado Capitol’s entrances, and permanent metal detectors have since been installed.

Nationwide, 28 state capitols have metal detectors, two only have armed guards and 20 have no metal detectors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. States such as Texas, Utah, Virginia and Kansas let people carry guns in the state Capitol, though procedure varies on whether visitors must pass through metal detectors or have gun permits.

The argument commonly made against additional security is that “the Capitol is a public building, citizens should have access to their legislators and to the legislative process,” said Diane Chaffin of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 2014, state lawmakers backed by Tomblin made it impossible for city officials to ban guns at such facilities as city swimming pools, tennis courts, after-school centers and similar recreational venues. The new law allows only people with concealed carry permits to bring guns to those locations, but they must “out of view and access to others” - or lock them in their cars out of sight.

The city of Charleston is challenging the change in court, contending it’s a felony to bring guns to places hosting school events, including recreation facilities.

“I’ve never looked for consistency up there,” Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said of the Legislature.

In a firearm-friendly state, however, only five lawmakers opposed that bill.

One of those who oppose looser gun restrictions, Del. Nancy Guthrie, questioned why Cole and others now seek more security where they work.

“I do find it ironic that he wants to put all these protections up but he’s probably one of the leading proponents of allowing people to carry guns into a day care center, or a community center, or onto a ballfield where kids are playing sports,” said Guthrie, a Kanawha County Democrat.

Democratic House Minority Leader Tim Miley, who backed the recreation center bill as former House speaker, said Capitol security is different. He said high-profile buildings could be sought out by individuals wishing to make statements through violence.

“Usually, the buildings that have the security house people and property that proceed to be the reason for a person’s unhappiness,” said Miley, who advocates heightened security.

Tomblin said plans for metal detectors were drawn up after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, but implemented only in the Capitol’s surrounding buildings.

In addition to hosting the Legislature, governor’s office and other state offices, the Capitol complex is home to the West Virginia Supreme Court, which does employ an X-ray machine and metal detector when in session.

This year, Tomblin signed legislation letting people with concealed carry permits keep guns in their cars at the Capitol. Tomblin also vetoed a push to eliminate the permit required to carry concealed guns.

Currently, the state is undergoing a $3 million security project to add a fence around the Governor’s Mansion and convert two Capitol parking lots into a bus turnaround.

The West Virginia Citizens Defense League wouldn’t mind added security like metal detectors if lawmakers underwent the same security screenings as citizens, said Keith Morgan, president of that gun rights group.

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