OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - All firearms will be banned from the public galleries above the Washington Senate floor once the legislative session begins in January, under an order issued Monday by Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib.
Habib, a Democrat who serves as the presiding officer of the chamber, told The Associated Press and Northwest News Network that his goal is to create a safer environment for all working in the Senate. The move comes nearly three years after officials decided to ban openly carried weapons in the House and Senate public viewing areas, as well as the public hearing rooms at the Capitol’s legislative office buildings.
Habib’s order expands that rule to include those carrying concealed weapons with permits. For now, the rule is limited just to the public galleries in the Senate and doesn’t include the committee rooms.
“I don’t want us to be implementing this type of order the day after some type of tragedy,” Habib said. “I want to be doing it preemptively and in a way that’s respectful.”
The rule also doesn’t cover the House, which would need to take its own action if officials there wanted to follow suit. House officials said Monday that there are currently no discussions on changing that chamber’s policy.
Habib said that at this point there’s no plan for metal detectors outside of the galleries or storage lockers for people to store their gun, though in a letter sent Monday to the chamber’s sergeant at arms, he asked for logistical and costs factors related to metal detectors by the start of the next session. Currently, visitors to the Capitol do not need to go through any screening to enter the building.
Under the order, which will be enforced starting on Jan. 8, overcoats or large bags that could be used to conceal firearms into the galleries will also be prohibited in the public viewing area, and there will be increased vigilance by security prior to and during Senate floor sessions. Habib said that while his main concern is about assault weapons being hidden and brought into the galleries, the order applies to all firearms.
“The message to members of the public is that - as in the case in countless government buildings around the country, including most statehouses, courthouses all over the place - this is a particular setting where it’s not deemed safe to have weapons,” he said. “This is in no way a statement about those individuals’ lawful ability to bear arms.”
Dave Workman, spokesman for the Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, disagreed, saying that Habib’s statements were “disingenuous at best because this absolutely is a statement about those individuals’ lawful ability to bear arms.”
“We’re not talking about guns really, we’re talking about the public’s right to access to watch their government in action,” he said. “Whether they’re armed or disarmed, I’m not too sure that’s really the point here. This looks like an attempt to keep some people out of the senate galleries that never caused a problem before.”
In a statement, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson said these kinds of steps “are needed to keep the public safe.”
“Mass shootings are preventable, yet occur seemingly weekly in our country,” she wrote. “People come to the Legislature every day just like they go to movie theaters, churches, concerts, malls, night clubs, offices and schools every day. There should be a reasonable expectation they can go about their lives without fear of violence.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 10 states - including Washington - are “open carry” and allow guns in their statehouse buildings, 13 allow guns with a permit, and three permit only legislators to carry guns in the building.
“I understand that public safety is the driving concern behind banning guns in the public galleries of the Senate, but I trust that the lieutenant governor will seek legal advice to ensure that the order also respects the public’s constitutional rights,” Republican Minority Leader Mark Schoesler said in a written statement.
Openly carried weapons are still allowed in the main public areas of the Washington Capitol and on the grounds of the Capitol campus.
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