Capitol shooting revives talk of security increase

But Perry says he doesn’t want airportlike security

By Mike Ward

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Updated: 11:18 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22, 2010

Published: 10:34 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22, 2010

A day after a man fired shots into the air outside the Texas Capitol, a renewed debate over bolstering security at the statehouse gained momentum.

With several lawmakers calling publicly for metal detectors and other beefed-up security measures, Senate and House leaders announced plans for a special working group to study increased security measures.

Even so, Gov. Rick Perry made it clear Friday that he’s not in favor of increased security if it means installing airportlike checkpoints.

“The last thing I want is the Texas Capitol to turn into DFW airport,” he told reporters after accepting a re-election endorsement from the Texas State Rifle Association and the National Rifle Association.

Perry said enough people in Texas have concealed-carry handgun licenses to deter violent criminals. “That keeps us all safer,” he said.

Still, there were renewed calls for guns to be banned from the Capitol, a proposal that has been blocked several times in the past — partly because so many lawmakers carry concealed handguns themselves, lawmakers and staff members said.

“We need to rethink the whole issue of allowing guns in the Capitol — and that’s the political part of this we need to get past,” said state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who said he is considering legislation next session banning guns from the statehouse, just like schools, airports and courthouses — even Austin City Hall.

“The incident (Thursday) is not so much about what happened .\u2009.\u2009. as what could have happened,” he said.

During Thursday’s noon hour, Fausto Cardenas, 24, approached staffers in the third-floor Capitol office of state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston , and tried to get one — a young woman — to meet with him privately in Patrick’s office for reasons that were unclear, investigators said.

When she refused and other employees became concerned about his behavior, he left, officials say. Several minutes later, police said, he fired at least five shots into the air with a small-caliber handgun outside the Capitol’s south entrance.

No one was hurt. Cardenas was quickly subdued by state troopers, and a gun was seized. Cardenas was in the Travis County Jail on Friday in lieu of $250,000 bail on third-degree felony charges of deadly conduct.

In a letter to House members, Speaker Joe Straus said talks were under way with the Senate “about further steps to ensure the safety of our members, staff and visitors while at the Capitol.”

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst sent a similar message to senators. Spokesman Mike Wintemute said the issue “is a high priority” for Dewhurst.

Perry aides and House and Senate officials made it clear they will look to the Texas Department of Public Safety for guidance. That agency is reviewing the matter as part of its investigation into the shooting, said director Steve McCraw.

About a year ago, John Carona, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, called for increased security after a witness threatened him during a hearing and was escorted from the building.

Carona, R-Dallas, called for metal detectors at all public entrances to the Capitol, more surveillance cameras and more security personnel to be assigned to the seat of state government — which state officials at the time acknowledged was probably one of the few remaining state capitols without security screening devices at every entrance.

Capitols in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana all have metal detectors, officials in those states said. The Texas Capitol has a network of surveillance cameras supplemented with uniformed state troopers posted in all hallways and public areas.

In Illinois, a special police division was established after an incident in which an unarmed security guard at the capitol was shot and killed in 2004. Visitors now have to go through metal detectors and have their belongings X-rayed in the Capitol and all adjacent state buildings, said Henry Haupt, a spokesman for the Illinois secretary of state’s office.

Though metal detectors were purchased for the Texas Capitol several years ago, they have not been used often. Officials said they were used at public entrances for a time during the Iraq war and to screen visitors to the public galleries during legislative sessions — and some were borrowed to beef up security at state prisons until permanent equipment could be ordered.

“There is a hesitance against metal detectors that we need to get over,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who has pushed for additonal Capitol security for years. “This incident shows we need improved security now.”

Echoing that sentiment was Patrick, among the lawmakers who has a concealed weapons permit and is a champion of gun owners’ rights. Within hours of Thursday’s shooting, he was among the legislators calling for beefed-up Capitol security.

“Today, we got a warning shot — literally,” he told reporters in Houston. “This could have been a tragedy.”

By Friday morning, the crime scene tape was gone and business had returned to normal — with troopers and cameras but no screening devices at entrances.

For their part, tourists seemed to take Thursday’s events in stride — taking group photos at the shooting scene, asking Capitol guides for more details (without response) and making clear their views on Capitol security.

While some said they were for metal detectors, many seemed to agree with Perry.

“To make it like getting into an airport would be terrible,” said Houston resident Marian Horton, who was touring with several friends from Florida. “One of the charms about this Capitol is that it is open, accessible, to the people of this state. Turning it into a security area would be a mistake.”

Retired Marine Bob Haskins of Dallas echoed that sentiment, with a twist:

“I’m not surprised that somebody might start shooting. I am surprised that with all the thousands of people in Texas with (concealed carry licenses) that no one took the guy out after he opened fire.”