Metal Detectors the Norm at Schools and Ballparks. State Capitols? Not So Much

The entrance to the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston can resemble an airport checkpoint. But many statehouses across the country have no metal detectors.

SALT LAKE CITY — You can’t cheer on the Utah Jazz in their home arena without going through a metal detector. But visiting the Utah Capitol for a field trip, a protest, a meeting with the governor or a wedding photo shoot? Step right in, no scan required.

There aren’t any metal detectors at the towering Capitol in Nebraska, either. Or in Vermont, or Michigan, or more than a dozen other states.

The entrance to the West Virginia Capitol, on the other hand, can resemble an airport checkpoint. And if you find yourself in the security line behind a group of Girl Scouts lobbying at the Georgia Capitol, you might be waiting for a while.

Even in this era of active shooter seminars and gun control debates, more than one-third of the country’s state capitols lack the kinds of security measures that have become routine at many middle schools, museums and big-league ballparks. Almost a generation after the Sept. 11 attacks, there is still no national consensus about the right balance of public access, safety and cost at the seats of state power.

“I think that we’ve been fortunate in Montana, and I hope we continue to be fortunate,” Gov. Steve Bullock said in his office in Helena, where there are no metal detectors at the Capitol doors, just a few notices about weapons being barred from the building.

“I think we always want to make sure that we can figure out ways to keep this the people’s building, and not make it too intrusive to get in to it,” he said.

There has been a trend toward tightening. Fewer than two dozen states had metal detectors at the public entrances of their capitols in 2008, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures; now the figure is more than 30. The North Carolina General Assembly is putting them in this month at its building in Raleigh. Officials there said they were meant “to make the building safe for all who have business with the General Assembly.”

Security experts say state capitols could be appealing targets, and that screening visitors is a must. But some public officials worry that metal detectors — and long lines to get through them — might deter people from visiting and demonstrating in halls of power that have always been accessible.

“I’m afraid it will make us appear less open,” said Darren G. Jackson, the Democratic leader of the North Carolina House of Representatives. “But I hope the day-to-day impact will be less.”

Officials in states that have used metal detectors for years say the inconvenience is usually minimal.

“It gives them a sense of security that they are protected, that we are here,” said Sgt. Michael Moore of the Capitol Police unit in Springfield, Ill., where detectors were put in after an unarmed statehouse guard was killed in 2004. “We rarely get any complaints.”

And states do not necessarily require everybody to pass through them. In Texas, people who are licensed to carry concealed weapons get to use a special lane to skip the screening that schoolchildren and sightseers get.

In Illinois, frequent visitors to the Capitol complex — including state employees, journalists and lobbyists — are issued badges that let them bypass the security line.

And the Colorado Senate approved a measure this year that would have allowed anyone with a felony-free record to pay $250, submit fingerprints and get an ID card to let them enter the Capitol without being searched.

That bill faltered in the House, but if it had become law, legislative staff members estimated that hundreds of lobbyists would have bought the cards, in a state where an armed man was shot and killed outside the governor’s office by state troopers in 2007.

For now, Utah doesn’t need any such exceptions. The Capitol in Salt Lake City may not have metal detectors, but in other ways it has the makings of a hilltop fortress: armed troopers in the driveway, bollards to keep vehicles away, a network of surveillance cameras, even an engineering system to guard against earthquake damage.

State officials say there have been occasional security episodes, including one when a man drove a pickup truck up the Capitol’s west steps (thus the bollards). And they say they have considered adding metal detectors, only to conclude that they are unnecessary and cloistering.

“Quite frankly, it’s the environment we live in in the state of Utah, and that it is the people’s house,” said Maj. Jess Anderson of the Utah Highway Patrol, who has been involved with Capitol security for more than a decade. “We certainly still want to keep the atmosphere inviting and warm to those that are visiting the Capitol building.”

Major Anderson said the Utah authorities are “not naïve” to threats, and seek “a fine balance" of security and openness.

Even so, at the granite and marble Capitol within sight of the snow-capped Wasatch Range, the absence of detectors that are so common elsewhere can be a bit bewildering for residents and visitors alike.

“It’s kind of surprising, truly, these days, because there are so many nuts,” Jill Forker, who lives just southeast of Salt Lake City, said as she left the Capitol.

“But it’s nice not to have to be able to go through them, and you can kind of just wander around,” said her husband, John, who works at a theater where customers’ backpacks are searched.

“But these are the state’s most important officials,” Ms. Forker continued, “and to not have a metal detector is kind of odd.”

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