Gov. Rick Perry and his chosen leader of the state Department of Public Safety fundamentally disagree about how to secure the Capitol in the wake of a January shooting that rattled those who work under the dome and prompted renewed calls for stricter safety measures.
DPS Director Steve McCraw has been collaborating with legislative leaders on a security improvement plan since a gunman fired shots on the Capitol grounds Jan. 21. The plan, which will be presented to state officials later this month, includes placing X-ray machines and metal detectors at Capitol entrances. While McCraw and some state senators argue the increased protective measures are critical, Perry and others in the Legislature worry such security hurdles would make the Capitol unwelcoming to the public.
At a Feb. 1 joint meeting of the House Transportation and Senate Transportation and Homeland Security committees, lawmakers asked McCraw what his department was doing to address Capitol security. The meeting came less than two weeks after 24-year-old Fausto Cardenas walked into the Capitol with a gun. He followed a staffer into the office of state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and after being denied a visit with the woman fired off shots outside the building.
“I understand the concern that we not look like a fortress, but I also believe that we live in an age today where security concerns are different than they were 30 or 40 years ago,” state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said at the meeting. “I’m concerned specifically about what we’re going to do about gun detection as people make their way into the various entrances to the Capitol.”
McCraw assured Carona that he shared his concerns and was working on a plan that would improve weapon detection. “There’s no question that to optimize security we have to use X-rays, and we have to use metal detectors,” McCraw said.
But Perry has made it clear he doesn’t see those tools as a necessity, especially in a state where the law allows citizens to carry concealed weapons if they're licensed to do so. Days after the January shooting, Perry said he didn’t want security at the Capitol to make the place look like a security terminal at an airport. This week, Perry said his sentiment hasn’t changed. “I don't agree with (McCraw), but I bet there will be a legislative discussion about it,” Perry said.
It won't be the first discussion legislators have had about security at the Capitol. Previous incidents have also sparked calls for metal detectors and X-ray machines. In 2007, prompted by what then-state Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, told the Houston Chronicle were unspecified threats and terrorism concerns, lawmakers stationed metal detectors at the entrance to the Senate viewing gallery.
At an April 2009 hearing of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security, a man named Clay Laird told Carona, chairman of the committee, that if he and other legislators didn’t clamp down on illegal immigration they would hear from him later at their homes. DPS troopers escorted Laird from the hearing, according to Austin American-Statesman reports, after he told Carona, “It is not a threat. … It is a promise written in blood.”
At the Texas Capitol, signs at the entrances warn visitors that they are subject to search, and armed DPS troopers are stationed throughout the complex, but there are no detection devices that check visitors for weapons.
At least 20 other states do have metal detectors at their capitol entrances, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The group conducted a survey of security measures last year. Twenty-three states did not respond to the survey because they did not want to reveal their security strategies. Of the remaining states that did respond to the survey, just six said they don’t have metal detectors.
State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, chairman of the House Administration Committee, who is working with McCraw and other legislators on the security plan, said they hope to agree on and implement new safety measures before the start of the 2011 legislative session. Geren said he’s not sold on the idea of X-ray machines and metal detectors, either. Nothing lawmakers do inside the Capitol, he said, is going to keep “some idiot” from shooting his gun outside the building. “No matter what we do, we can’t stop a stupid guy from being stupid,” Geren said. “You can’t legislate stupidity.”