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A man carries a firearm into the Legislative Building in Olympia, Washington, during a gun-rights rally last year. Rules at the Capitol allow guns to be carried openly in the building.

Gun Policy

Do Guns Mix With Democracy? The Fight Over Firearms in Government Buildings.

Skirmishes playing out in state capitols are a single front in the battle over so-called gun-free zones.

At a recent legislative hearing in New Hampshire, a resident delivered fiery testimony against bare breasts. He had journeyed to the capitol to weigh in on a controversial law that allows women to go topless in public — a policy that represents a sharp clash between the state’s “live free or die” ethos and its puritan New England roots. Adding to the man’s memorable speech were the sidearms slung from each of his shoulders.

Technically, the policy that allows New Hampshire residents to carry guns into the statehouse specifies that weapons must be concealed, but the rule is not always enforced. “People are used to it,” Representative John Burt, a Republican, tells The Trace. “Even people that are against it just look the other way.” For observers of the gun debate, the frequency of fights over such laws makes them hard to ignore. The issue of firearms in government buildings — statehouses, city council offices, townhalls, among others — has become a flashpoint in state and local governments across the country. Since last year, bills to expand gun access in such places have been introduced in at least 13 states, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

In Kentucky, a bill would remove the ability of local governments to restrict guns in any public building, aside from courtrooms and jails. In Minnesota, a bill would allow permit holders to carry within the capitol area, and in courthouses. And most recently, on March 3, the Arizona Senate advanced a bill that would open the doors for guns in many public buildings.

In New Hampshire, the policy has swung back and forth as parties have traded power in Concord. The law has changed no less than five times in the last decade. As recently as 2015, guns were banned in the statehouse, until conservative lawmakers regained control of the legislature and legalized them again.

Skirmishes in state capitols over guns in government buildings are a front in the larger battle over so-called gun-free zones. For years, pro-gun advocates have waged a campaign to eradicate gun bans in public places, such as universities and parks. The logic goes that Second Amendment rights should be unfettered, especially in spaces funded by taxpayer dollars. But when the gun-free zone is a building where legislators or city councilors hash out new laws, the clashes take on added weight.

“It is the people’s house,” says New Hampshire’s Burt. “The citizens of New Hampshire have a right to carry their sidearm in any public place that they deem fit.”

Burt argues that firearms can only make his workplace safer: An armed citizen might be able to stop a shooter, for example. It can also cut costs, he believes: It’s cheaper to let everyone defend themselves than to add metal detectors and security guards.

But not all agree.

“We think it’s a bad idea, in a nutshell,” says Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney for the Law Center. Cutilletta says that emotions run high at public meetings and citizens shouldn’t have to worry about their safety if they chose to participate in democracy.

It’s not just speculation: In 2014, Gerald Haddock, a prominent Texas lawyer, was “confronted, coerced, bullied, and threatened” by three men at the Republican state convention. One was armed with a handgun. Haddock, a delegate, saw the incident as an attempt to influence his vote.

“[Voting rights are] the essence of democracy,” Haddock told the New Republic after the confrontation. “And we cannot have anybody in a position of doing something that intimidates and in any way restricts that process.”

Cutilletta adds that worries about guns in government buildings are exacerbated “because a lot of states have weak permits in the first place.”

Kansas is one such state that, as of last year, requires neither training nor a permit to carry a concealed gun in public. That right extends to all government buildings, with the exception of courthouses.

Individual municipalities can opt out of the policy, by posting a “no guns allowed” sign. But two new bills up for debate at the statehouse, HB2573 and SB65, take away that option. The bills would require all public buildings, excluding universities and courtrooms, to allow firearms.

“The logic is that the legislature trusts law abiding Kansans,” says Kansas Senator Forrest Knox, a Republican.

Representative Annie Tietze, an outspoken Kansas Democrat, is not comforted by this logic. She remembers when“three gentlemen came to my office on the gun issue” last summer. They were there to confront her about votes, and Tietze worried they might be armed. She kept her office door open so that her office assistant, who had a finger ready to push a panic button, could see what transpired. In the end, the heated discussion never progressed to something worse, but she still worries for her safety when she walks out of the chambers following a contentious session.

“I think I would feel a lot more comfortable if they had some sort of licensing,” she says. “We used to.”

[Photo: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren]