Many state capitols have security holes
- By Elaine S. Povich, Alex Brown
- Jan 11, 2021
State capitols around the country remain on high alert following the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and as new threats surface online, but with less than two-thirds of them employing metal detectors, and about 20 statehouses specifically allowing guns inside, there are many security gaps that rioters could exploit.
Last week, as insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump broke through U.S. Capitol windows and ransacked congressional offices, like-minded protesters gathered at state capitols around the country. Most chanted, gave speeches and carried flags without much incident. But rioters cracked a window in Arizona and were dispersed by police in Oregon. Several statehouses shuttered for the day.
More violence is expected. In Washington state, where militia groups have planned to conduct an armed occupation of the Capitol this week, Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has called in 750 National Guard members to provide security in Olympia. Perimeter fencing now surrounds the Capitol campus, less than a week after far-right demonstrators broke through a gate and stormed the grounds of the governor’s mansion. The occupation that organizers had called to begin Sunday evening has yet to materialize.
On social media, pro-Trump activists have threatened more action at state capitols in the coming days, including an “armed march” planned the weekend before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. The chairman of the Nye County, Arizona, Republican party posted a letter online, claiming “It’s 1776 all over again” and pledging that Biden would never become president.
Many capitols already are temporarily inaccessible to the public because of COVID-19 concerns. But even after the violence in Washington, D.C., some stayed open, albeit with more screening of visitors or staff. And they can’t stay closed forever, even in the face of future mobs in or near capitol buildings.
“We are likely to see a continuation of some of the same things we saw [last week], particularly in state legislatures,” said Lindsay Schubiner, a program director for the Western States Center, a Portland-based nonprofit that monitors extremists.
“We're deeply concerned for what's likely to come in the coming months in state capitols,” she said. “There's a real risk that this type of activity intended to undermine democracy will significantly have an impact on what state legislatures are able to do. It's likely that state capitols will continue to be an epicenter of far-right organizing and activity. It's quite frightening.”
Security measures at state capitols range widely.
About 30 state capitols employ metal detectors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Spokesperson Mick Bullock would not elaborate, citing security concerns. On the flip side, according to the Crime Prevention Research Center, a pro-gun research group, about 20 capitols officially allow carrying legal firearms inside.
The Michigan Capitol is one of them. A bomb threat early Thursday morning, a day after the insurrection in Washington, shut down the Capitol in Lansing, according to Lt. Brian Oleksyk of the Michigan State Police. The building already was closed because the legislature was not in session, the department said in a statement. No bomb was found, and the building reopened to staff later in the day.
“Right now the interior of the Capitol is open [gun] carry,” Oleksyk said in a phone interview. “There are no metal detectors at the doors. That is being reviewed by the Capitol Commission [which regulates the building].”
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, tweeted Thursday: “Let me repeat this in no uncertain terms: Our state Capitol is not safe. I would advise people not to go to our state Capitol if they can avoid it.”
Firearm-carrying protesters besieged the Michigan Capitol last April, drawing national attention as they banged on windows as lawmakers worked inside. They included some of the men arrested this fall as members of the Wolverine Watchman group who police say threatened to kidnap and kill Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, said attorney general spokesperson Kelly Rossman-McKinney.
“Some of our state legislators have been pictured with their arms around the shoulders of some of those very Wolverine Watchmen,” she said.
The state’s Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican, said he would support a ban on the open carry of firearms in the Michigan Capitol, but would not prevent concealed carry for those with a permit.
The Capitol has already instituted many enhanced security measures including more cameras and more state police personnel, said John Truscott, vice-chair of the Michigan Capitol Commission. “We have always tried to maintain that this building is open to the public. How do we do that? That’s where the difficulty comes in.”
He also said the estimated cost of magnetometers and the personnel to run them is close to $1 million a year and could hamper entry for staffers.
“After what happened yesterday, we need to have a much broader conversation beyond weapons,” he said Thursday. “What else do the state police need?”
The Western States Center also is concerned about a number of Republican lawmakers in the region who have expressed sympathy for the pro-Trump demonstrators. As an example, Oregon Republican state Rep. Mike Nearman opened a door to allow demonstrators into the Oregon Capitol, House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat, said.
And West Virginia Republican Del. Derrick Evans, who filmed himself taking part in the U.S. Capitol breach, was arrested on federal charges of illegally entering the building. He resigned this weekend.
Many of the demonstrators at statehouse events spouted the same pro-Trump rhetoric and carried the same kinds of inflammatory banners as their counterparts in Washington, D.C.
The California Capitol in Sacramento was already closed to visitors due to COVID-19, but a group of Trump supporters and members of the Proud Boys, a far-right militia group, demonstrated there in conjunction with the Washington, D.C., riot. Unlike in Washington, there was no violence and no one attempted to breach the closed Capitol, where weapons are prohibited and all visitors must show identification and pass through metal detectors, said John Ortega, a spokesperson for the California Highway Patrol, which runs security for the building.
Crowds also gathered at statehouses in Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota and Ohio. In Atlanta, militia members assembled outside the Capitol, and senior staffers were evacuated as a precaution. In Cheyenne, Wyoming, state troopers locked down both the Capitol and the adjoining Herschler Office Building.
About a thousand Trump supporters gathered at the Arizona Capitol in downtown Phoenix to protest the certification of election results for President-elect Joe Biden. A handful of protesters were seen banging on the locked doors of the building, yelling for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and shouting "Freedom!" No one attempted to enter the building, The Arizona Republic reported, but the banging cracked a window.
Trump supporters lined the streets outside Nevada’s Statehouse and rallied in front of federal buildings in Las Vegas. In Carson City, protestors called for a “new Republican Party” and equated the vote count to treason.
Protesters converged on the Oregon Capitol in Salem, where speakers addressed topics including Trump’s false claim that the election had been stolen from him. Counter-demonstrators arrived a few hours later, and the sides clashed until police declared an unlawful assembly and dispersed the crowd, according to The Oregonian.
A group of pro-Trump protesters outside the Utah Capitol swelled to an estimated 400. A spokesperson for Republican Gov. Spencer Cox said he remained inside the building while other staffers were ordered to leave, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
Carl Moody, the research director for the pro-gun Crime Prevention Research Center and an economics professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, used Virginia as an example of how inconsistent enforcement of state capitol gun laws can be. The Virginia legislature passed a ban on guns in the Capitol in January 2020 that included lawmakers, tourists, staff and visitors. But as a practical matter, The Washington Post reported, lawmakers don’t go through magnetometers routinely, and could therefore bring guns in undetected.
Moody argued that if the only people who legitimately can have weapons are police, an intruder could take out the officers and then move unfettered through the building. “You might as well say ‘shoot [the cops] first’ and you won’t have anyone between you and the object of your desire,” he said in a phone interview. If lawmakers carried weapons, he said, they could defend the capitols.
Stateline staff writer Matt Vasilogambros contributed to this story.
This article was first posted to Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.