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Sunday, November 19, 2017 1:00 am

Capitol staff has limits on firearms

Not allowed to carry at certain meetings

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Hundreds of legislative staffers can now carry handguns in the Indiana Statehouse and adjacent state office buildings – but the newfound freedom isn't without limitation.

Lawmakers this year passed a law allowing those who work in the House, Senate, Legislative Services Agency and Lobby Registration Commission to bring guns to work if they have a valid Indiana permit. That covers more than 475 employees.

“It's a constitutional right. I think everyone's right to protection should be recognized in the Statehouse,” said Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour – one of the authors of Senate Enrolled Act 43. “Legislators aren't any different than the people. Our lives are no more important.”

Lawmakers and judges are already exempt from the general no-weapons policy at the state Capitol complex.

The House and Senate each have offered firearm safety training through the Indiana State Police to full-time staff, and have crafted new employee handbook policies impacting handguns.

Legislative leaders together can set personnel policies on guns for the Legislative Services Agency, which provides fiscal analysis and writes the bills, but have not acted yet.

House Majority Floor Leader Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said there was a public safety argument during discussion on the bill that legislative staffers often work late and security isn't always around when it's dark.

“If they have properly gone through background checks and have a license they should have the same right to carry like us,” he said.

But a section of both the House and Senate policies says employees are prohibited from carrying a handgun into any meeting related to personnel matters, including meetings discussing evaluations, disciplinary action, and human resource matters.

“If there's any time you are going to be in a situation where it could be confrontational, we want to eliminate anything where someone might respond irrationally,” Lehman said.

Employees are expected to leave their gun at home that day or lock it in their car or desk. He said it should not be left where anyone can access it.

Another key section says an employee can be disciplined for “reckless behavior with a handgun, including accidental discharge or open carry of a handgun.”

Indiana law authorizes a person to carry a handgun in public but doesn't specify whether it is a concealed or open carry permit.

Lucas said it's probably best not to openly show the gun even if you have the right.

“I think it brings undue attention to yourself and freaks out people around you,” he said. “We're making good strides with our gun laws and things like that bring unnecessary attention.”

Both the House and Senate require employees to alert superiors if their license to carry is suspended or revoked. A House employee must do so within five days and a Senate employee within one day. The Senate also requires employees to complete a handgun safety training course. 

The Crime Prevention Research Center found 21 state capitols allow some form of legal firearm carry for either visitors, legislators, employees, or all of the above.

The nonprofit group says its goal is to provide an objective and accurate scientific evaluation of the costs and benefits of gun ownership as well as policing activities. It doesn't accept donations from either side of the gun control debate.

Sometimes accidents happen, though.

In New Hampshire, Republican Rep. Carolyn Halstead dropped her loaded gun on the floor near some children. It didn't fire and nobody was hurt.

In Kansas, Republican Rep. Willie Dove acknowledged he inadvertently left a loaded gun in a public committee room where a secretary found it a few minutes later.

nkelly@jg.net