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Gun toting Assemblyman draws attention to Capitol security gaps
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — Had Assemblyman Tim Donnelly not been stopped by airport security, he could have walked straight into the state Capitol carrying his loaded Colt .45-caliber handgun.
Unlike civilians, state lawmakers do not have to pass through metal detectors to get inside the building, security officials said Wednesday.
Another gap in the Capitol's security system that has been highlighted since Donnelly's gun incident last week is the parking garage used by lawmakers. There is no security checkpoint for lawmakers — or anyone else — coming from the underground garage into the Capitol.
There is nothing to prevent lawmakers and others who use unsecured entry ways from bringing a weapon inside the building, but no changes are planned, according to sergeants-at-arms in the Assembly and Senate, and the California Highway Patrol.
Lawmakers are supposed to get permission from the Assembly and Senate sergeants-at-arms if they want to bring in a weapon, but sergeants take them at their word. Moreover, employees who work in the building have electronic pass cards that let them enter after hours without going through a security screening.
Donnelly said he had no intention of bringing his loaded handgun with him to work. He was cited for a misdemeanor after Transportation Security Administration screeners spotted the gun at Ontario International Airport, east of Los Angeles, as he was headed to the Capitol for the first day of this year's legislative session.
Donnelly said he had the handgun because he had received death threats over his support for a potential ballot referendum that sought to undo a new law related to public financial aid for illegal immigrant college students. He said he had forgotten that he had placed it in his briefcase before taking it to the airport.
The San Bernardino County district attorney's office is still reviewing Donnelly's misdemeanor citation, said spokesman Christopher Lee.
Officer Sean Kennedy, spokesman for the CHP Office of Capitol Protection, said the Donnelly incident raises "a great question" about the gap in security. But Kennedy said rules for entering the building are set by the Assembly and Senate sergeants-at-arms, who in turn answer to the Legislature's Joint Rules Committee.
Armed CHP officers back up security screeners and sweep vehicles in the Capitol's basement garage for bombs after the occupants have left the vehicles to be parked.
The Rules Committee decided to exempt lawmakers from passing through security checkpoints when metal detectors were installed at the Capitol after 9/11, said Tony Beard, the Senate's chief sergeant.
"We're always looking at the security of the Capitol. Those are constant conversations," said the Assembly's chief sergeant, Ronald E. Pane.
Both said they see no reason to make a change. Several lawmakers who sit on the Rules Committee had no immediate comment on whether they might seek a review of the Capitol's security gaps.
Both sergeants-at-arms said they are confident that lawmakers who felt the need to carry weapons would inform them as required by Capitol rules.
Last year, four Assembly members asked to bring their guns to work for self-defense, though they were denied permission after sergeants-at-arms in the 80-member Assembly began carrying handguns full-time.
The decision to arm sergeants in the Assembly, though not the Senate, was made after threats against state lawmakers and the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords a year ago.
A law that took effect last year requires everyone except peace officers to get permission from the sergeants-at-arms before bringing their guns into legislative buildings, even if they have a concealed weapons permit from a local sheriff.
"If there was some reason they had to bring it in, they'd come talk with us," Pane said.
Employees were initially exempted from screenings as well, until several years after the screenings were started for civilians entering the building. Now workers must go through the metal detectors during normal business hours, but they can use their employee cards to enter unscreened on nights and weekends.
Changing that rule could affect employees' ability to conduct the public's business, said Larry Venus, spokesman for Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga. Dutton is on the Joint Rules Committee and until this week was the Senate minority leader.
"They'd have to have someone working the doors 24 hours, or not allow access," Venus said.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, thinks the Legislature has made the right choices in safeguarding the Capitol, said spokesman John Vigna.
"We do want to make sure our security is as tight as possible," Vigna said. "But at the same time we have to balance the needs of the members and staff to come in and get their work done."
However, Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the Senate leader would discuss Capitol security with the Rules Committee, other senators, and the Senate sergeants to see if there is a need to revisit the Legislature's current security policies.