WASHINGTON -- For Patrick Hope, a former congressional staffer who is now a state representative in Virginia, one of the biggest differences between working at the U.S. Capitol and working at the statehouse in Richmond became apparent shortly after he took office last year. Hope, a 38-year-old Democrat, was riding in an elevator in the state Capitol when he noticed that a political activist standing beside him had a handgun strapped to his leg.
Carrying firearms is banned in the halls of Congress, where Hope worked for several years as an aide to Nebraska Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey and Texas Congressman Henry Gonzalez. But it is perfectly legal at the Virginia Capitol, where lawmakers and visitors can -- and often do -- openly carry their guns with them.
"I was very uneasy seeing the weapon," Hope recounted in a telephone interview with Stateline.org. "I'm not sure what (the activist's) intentions were or why he felt like it was needed."
In the wake of the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson, the proximity between elected officials and armed citizens is drawing fresh attention and, in some cases, worry. Security personnel have stepped up their presence in some state capitols as new legislative sessions begin, and the typical raft of proposed pro- and anti-gun legislation has taken on a new urgency as a result of the events in Arizona.
Hope is among those who is concerned. He sees no reason for armed visitors to enter Virginia's statehouse, and he is pushing legislation this session that would ban firearms in the building for members of the public, although it would exempt lawmakers. Virginia is one of nine states that allow residents to bring guns into the Capitol, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"I don't see why it is so inconvenient for people to give up their firearms for the few minutes that they're here visiting our Capitol," Hope says. "You know never who's coming through the door."
When it comes to putting new limits on guns, however, Hope appears to be in the minority, both in Virginia and nationally, even though the Giffords shooting has rattled politicians from Arizona to Washington, D.C.
Virginia has a long tradition of gun rights, and state lawmakers in both parties are loath to vote "yes" on any bills that could be seen as infringing on the Second Amendment. Even in the aftermath of the shootings at Virginia Tech, where a mentally ill gunman killed 32 people and himself in 2007, Virginia lawmakers declined to close the so-called "gun show loophole," which allows firearms to be sold without a background check by private sellers at gun shows.
Last year, Virginia expanded gun rights to allow residents to carry concealed guns into bars and restaurants, provided they aren't drinking alcohol. And this month, Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell changed state policy to allow residents to openly carry guns in state parks.
Hope acknowledges that his legislation faces long odds in Virginia. "I have come to recognize that the gun lobby has a very strong grip on the General Assembly here," he says. "I've known this was a heavy lift from the beginning."
For every bill like Hope's that seeks to impose new limits on guns this year, there are just as many pro-gun bills being introduced in legislatures around the nation. Overwhelming victories by Republicans in November's state-level elections have increased the chances of such bills passing, and many lawmakers believe the right legislative response to fatal shootings like the one in Tucson is to expand, not limit, gun rights. Ensuring broader access to guns for law-abiding citizens, they argue, can help residents defend themselves if an attack or other emergency occurs.
In one of its first legislative moves, the GOP majority that took control of the New Hampshire House of Representatives earlier this month voted to allow concealed guns and other weapons in the statehouse and surrounding legislative buildings. Republicans also reversed a 40-year-old chamber policy that banned concealed guns on the House floor itself.
A Montana state senator, Verdell Jackson, is pushing legislation that would allow lawmakers with concealed carry permits to bring their guns into the statehouse in Helena, pointing to the shooting of Giffords as the reason for the proposed change. "I think what happened (in Arizona) is exactly what could happen right here," Jackson told the Helena Independent Record.
In several other states, the Giffords shooting appears to have done little to dampen enthusiasm for pro-gun bills that could significantly expand the presence of guns in society.
A state representative in Utah -- which, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has the most lenient gun-control laws in the nation -- wants to eliminate a requirement that residents need a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Only three states -- Arizona, Alaska and Vermont -- currently do not require such permits, and Arizona has drawn attention since the Giffords shooting because Phoenix is the only major metropolitan area in the nation where such a law is in place.
In Nebraska, where a high school student fatally shot an assistant principal earlier this month, a state senator has introduced legislation that could allow teachers and administrators to carry concealed guns with them to school. The legislation would give final say to local school boards, which could vote whether to allow concealed firearms on school property. The vast majority of states explicitly ban guns from K-12 schools.
In Arizona itself, the shooting of Giffords is unlikely to result in a toughening of the state's gun laws. Gov. Jan Brewer, Senate President Russell Pearce and House Speaker Kirk Adams all have vowed not to pursue new limits on guns or ammunition. To the contrary, lawmakers will consider a bill that would allow guns on college and university campuses -- legislation that also is being explored by Republican lawmakers in Florida and Texas, where powerful new GOP majorities ensure it will get a serious look. Only Utah now allows guns on its public college campuses.
Gun control has subsided as a political wedge issue over the past 15 years as Democrats have won congressional and statehouse seats in traditionally conservative areas, partly by touting their pro-gun credentials. It is common for Democrats today to support gun rights and receive favorable ratings from the National Rifle Association, the influential pro-gun lobbying group. Giffords herself is a proud gun owner who has long championed the Second Amendment. And President Barack Obama, who took office amid a perception among many gun owners that he would tighten firearms laws, has only loosened them, signing legislation to allow guns in national parks.
Public opinion surveys have long shown support for gun rights, and the U.S. Supreme Court has added momentum by ruling in June 2008 that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. The ruling -- which marked the first time the high court weighed in on one of the foremost political debates about guns -- has opened the door to a broad array of legal challenges to state and local gun-control laws, most notably those in Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
State lawmakers who are promoting greater gun rights this year reject the notion that allowing guns in more places will lead to more gun violence, particularly the kind seen in Tucson. No amount of legislation, they say, will ever prevent a mentally unstable person from harming others, and bills that seek to clarify the rights of law-abiding residents to defend themselves should not be misconstrued.
"Each legislative session, there's a moment in time that's going to captivate everyone and pull the wind out of the room," says Glenn Hegar, a champion of gun rights in the Texas Senate. "In D.C. and across the nation, the tragedy in Arizona has been one of those moments in time."
But Hegar, a Republican who is sponsoring legislation giving Texans the right to keep concealed guns in their cars when they are parked on company property, believes the Arizona shooting should not stall proposals that allow average gun owners to protect themselves more easily. "We have to very clearly look at the difference between citizens who are following the law," he says, "and those who are criminals who want to commit horrible crimes."
(c) 2011, Stateline.org.
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