Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Is the Utah State Capitol Safe?

bernick mugAnother tragic mass gun killing/shooting this week, this one in a public building in San Bernardino, just east of Los Angeles.

As of this writing, 14 dead and 17 injured. The death toll could rise.

These shootings in public places and public buildings just continue to increase. On the surface, little seems to be done about it – although police, paramedics and workers in these places continue to practice what to do in such horrific instances.

Utah is a Republican state, a strong gun rights state.

But the question remains – how are we preparing for these horrible events?

Well, we are training. I know that, for I work in one of the most public-friendly places – the Utah State Capitol complex.

Just this past month, state public safety personnel gave a briefing to the four legislative caucuses – Senate and House Democratic and Republican meetings.

I sat through the open House caucus – and the word was this: Stay attentive to your immediate environment, if you see something, say something, and call 911 if need be, knowing that there are uniform and plain clothes police nearby.

I’ll admit there is more presence today by uniformed Utah Highway Patrol troopers in the Capitol itself and the surrounding buildings and grounds.

New concrete-filled bollards have been installed around the Capitol building, to keep someone from driving a four-wheel drive vehicle right up to the large double doors of the building – as was done by a weirdo protester several years ago.

So, in theory, no one could drive their vehicle right up to the doors, or even break through them, and set off a bomb.

But Utah’s Capitol and surrounding hearing rooms are open to the public most of the day. And the beautiful, historic building can be rented out for various events, including high school prom dances.

While there are more cops, both in uniform and in plain clothes, in the building these days, and there are security cameras all over the place with on-sight monitoring in the new security center, Utah’s Capitol – unlike most others around the nation – does not have magnetic screeners for visitors and/or employees.

There are no checks for folks wearing concealed weapons – including guns.

And Utah has an open-carry law – so if you wanted to wear a handgun open on your person, or bring a long gun into the Capitol – you can do so.

If you have a concealed weapons permit, you can carry a gun covered up, as well, into the Capitol.

So there’s really no way to know how many folks may be sitting in the House or Senate gallery, walking the hallways, or be in committee hearing rooms carrying a loaded gun.

In fact, it is a not-so-well-hidden fact that several House members carry their concealed weapons on them during legislative meetings.

I’ve seen for myself several times when a CC lawmaker has taken his suit coat off in an overheated caucus or hearing room, displaying his holstered handgun.

Since Utah has an open carry law, he is perfectly legal to do so.

Recently the Capitol hosted a meeting of dozens of legislators from around the country to talk about adopting rules for a yet-called federal constitutional convention. The public meeting was held in the House Chambers.

I’m told that many the visiting legislators were amazed that they didn’t have to go through an airport-like electronic and personal bag screening process before they could walk into the Capitol.

Just open the door and walk in.

Such screening – even for I.D.-carrying legislators – was routine in their own Capitol buildings.

I recall asking the former architect of the Utah State Capitol – when the building was recently undergoing a multi-million refurbishing – if electronic screeners would be installed in the building.

Since the historic building has alcoves –two sets of double doors – at the four main entrances, the electronic devices could have even been built into the inner doorways, so those in line could wait in relative comfort in the cold and hot months before being checked and cleared.

No, said the architect. The GOP-controlled Legislature – which technically controls most of the Capitol areas – wouldn’t hear of installing such screenings.

That would mean no one from the public could carry their legal concealed weapon into the building, requiring lockers in the alcoves or making the persons return to their vehicles to lock their guns inside.

Either way, no way 2nd Amendment legislators would disturb voters/citizens that way, the architect was told.

Of course, other public buildings in Utah do have such electronic screenings – such as the federal courthouse, the federal building, various state courthouses, jails, airports, and other public places.

Some years ago the Utah Supreme Court met in its Capitol chambers. While lovely, the room is quite small – the justices sitting up on their bench just several dozen feet from the double doors opening into the large central building interior.

One day a justice noticed a man acting strangely in the small audience – with a bulge under his coat at the hip.

A gun?

At a break in the proceedings, the justice called Capitol security.  (The public petition filing room off to the right next door had for years a bulletproof entryway, but the justices sat for public hearings in an uncontrolled courtroom.)

The suspected man didn’t return to the hearing after the break, with a uniformed officer arriving even after that, I was told at the time.

Soon after that, a portable electronic screener was placed outside of the chamber doorway, and if you were going into a court hearing you had to walk through it and have any bags checked by state troopers.

But no such public screening occurs for folks going to legislative hearing rooms or into the public galleries overlooking the House and Senate chamber floors.

Is the Utah Capitol complex a safe place to work and visit?

I certainly hope so. And I suppose time will tell if it is.