South Dakota lawmaker Steve Hickey has 17 guns, a National Rifle Association card and a faith that pistol-packing residents make public places safer – except for the one where he works.
“We have the most contentious issues being debated in public policy, affecting people in irate, angrily ways and affecting millions and millions of dollars,” Hickey said of the copper-domed capitol in Pierre, where he sponsored a law allowing teachers to carry firearms in schools. “This is different than when you go work at the bar. This is different than you working at the bank.”
The push to permit guns in more public areas largely ends at the doors of America’s statehouses.
Since the 2012 shooting of 26 students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, legislators in 18 states have passed laws allowing guns in more places, including restaurants, schools and churches. The best antidote to violence, backers like Hickey and the NRA argue, is the presence or threat of more weapons, not fewer.
Only four of those states – Utah, Idaho, Mississippi and Texas – apply that same logic to their legislative chambers, leading critics to say that politicians are giving themselves special treatment.
A new law in West Virginia, for instance, prevents local officials from barring residents from carrying concealed firearms into recreation facilities, as long as guns are securely stored inside. It doesn’t apply to city halls or the Charleston statehouse.
“They did it everywhere but where they are,” said Mayor Danny Jones of Charleston, the West Virginia capital. “It says that the road to power is paved with hypocrisy. That’s what’s going on here.”
All 50 states allow residents to carry concealed guns outside their homes, though officials can still ban them from certain places.
Patrons in South Carolina and North Carolina no longer need to disarm when entering a bar. In Arkansas, that right extends to houses of worship with leaders’ permission and affiliated K-12 schools. Georgia last month passed legislation critics called the “guns everywhere” bill, allowing firearms to be carried even in airports outside of security checkpoints. None of those states allow the public to carry guns into legislatures, according to police.
In Indiana, guns are prohibited at the statehouse, though law enforcement, legislators with a license and judges can carry them. In March, the state’s Republican-led general assembly passed a bill that allows firearms to be kept in vehicles on school property.
The NRA, the nation’s largest gun-rights lobbying group, praised the Indiana law, saying it would “allow a law-abiding person to exercise their fundamental right to self-defense without fear of criminal prosecution.” Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the Fairfax, Virginia-based association, declined to comment about allowing guns in statehouses.
Education groups and the organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America opposed the Indiana law. The group is affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety, which was created by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to counter the NRA’s influence and push for tougher gun laws. Bloomberg, who said he would spend $50 million this year on the effort, is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News.
“We remain strongly opposed to legislation that would jeopardize the safety of our children by allowing guns in and around schools,” Nicki McNally, leader of the Indiana chapter of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement before the vote.
Studies show that the availability of guns increases incidents of violence, said Allison Anderman, staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“Guns don’t make us safer,” Anderman said.
At least 12 states allow citizens to bring firearms into capitol buildings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Idaho, an open-carry state, armed visitors to the capitol can just walk in, while in Texas, concealed-carry permit holders use a separate entrance lane to bypass metal detectors. In Wisconsin, guns are permitted in some areas of the capitol in Madison, including the floors of both legislative chambers and in the viewing gallery of the assembly.
Other statehouses allow guns, just not among the public. Kansas limits who can bring a weapon into the capitol and other state buildings to people who meet three criteria, said Officer Stephen Crumpler of the capitol police. They must have a concealed-carry license, a security key card given mostly to building employees and employer permission, he said.
Hickey, 46, a Republican representative first elected in 2010, said the “school sentinel” bill he sponsored this year would allow the arming of a select group, such as ex-military personnel or teachers who are former police officers. Many South Dakota schools in rural areas lack the resources to employ full-time security, said Hickey, a Christian minister.
He helped defeat a proposal to let the public carry guns year-round in the capitol, which also houses the offices of the governor, state Supreme Court and the treasurer. Instead, Hickey offered an amendment to open the building to guns on the 320 days a year when the legislature isn’t in session. Lawmakers rejected the bill.
“Gun-free zones are dangerous places, except for the criminal,” he said. Nonetheless, “there are times and places to disarm people.”
The imbalance draws rebuke even from gun-rights activists such as Richard Feldman, a former regional political director for the NRA and the president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association in Rindge, New Hampshire. Because the statehouse bans affect so few people, there may be less pressure to change them, even though doing so would have symbolic resonance for gun owners, he said.
“Gun-rights people – and I am one of them – feel a real contradiction: It’s OK to carry guns everywhere, but not where you do your business?” he said.
RECTIFYING A CONTRADICTION
Several states in recent years have sought to rectify the contradiction, including Florida, where in 2011 lawmakers banned local governments from restricting guns, including in municipal buildings. The bill also allowed firearms into the capitol in Tallahassee, though not in rooms where the legislature is in session or in committee. The public can bring guns into lawmakers’ offices, however, which prompted the installation of panic buttons.
In Louisiana, lawmakers are weighing a bill that explicitly maintains a weapons ban in the 34-story art deco tower in Baton Rouge where they meet.
It’s the tallest state capitol in the country, built during the tenure of Depression-era Gov. Huey Long. In 1935 at age 42, while serving as a U.S. senator, Long was shot in one of the building’s marble corridors. He died within days.