By Mark Guarino (AFP) - Apr 3, 2012
CHICAGO - When Wisconsin lawmakers gather to discuss the business of the day at least one of them is legally packing a concealed weapon, amid the ever-present and heated gun law debate in the United States.
Wisconsin is one of just nine US states -- out of 50 -- which have expanded conceal-carry laws to allow gun owners to enter state capitols with their weapons, including on the assembly floor.
After the law was passed in November, state representative Bill Kramer applied for a permit for a Glock 9mm handgun, in a politically charged national atmosphere which saw Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords shot and badly wounded at a rally in January 2011.
Kramer says he began to be fearful for his own safety after a raucous standoff over a collective bargaining bill last year which saw over 100,000 people protesting outside the Wisconsin assembly building for over two months.
"When we needed a police escort to get into the building, that makes you stand up and take notice," Kramer said. "When people get away with shouting at you, it doesn't mean it will be long before they get their hands on you."
Now, Kramer said, he carries the firearm with him "all the time".
Last year's shooting of Giffords, in which six people were killed, has heightened concerns in US state capitols, generating calls from some lawmakers for more permission to carry concealed weapons.
And Monday's rampage at a California school in which seven people were allegedly shot and killed by a former student has again ignited controversy over the nation's gun laws.
Many statehouses are stepping up security with metal detectors and other measures, but some legislators say the best move would be to allow them to carry their own weapons all the time.
Gun laws, enshrined in the US Constitution which gives Americans the right to bear arms, vary from state to state -- and the issue is hotly debated with some people calling for tighter gun controls and others maintaining they need to be loosened up.
In some states a concealed weapon requires a police escort or restricts gun owners to certain areas of the building while others -- Texas and Kentucky -- just require gun owners to produce their permit before entering.
Wisconsin became the 49th state with a conceal-carry law on the books, a provision that allows lawmakers to carry weapons in their offices and other government buildings.
But now lawmakers in other states are also calling for expanded rights, not just in state capitols but also in other areas where concealed handgun owners are exempt from carrying weapons.
The Texas Senate passed a bill in May that allows all elected statewide officials to join a list including federal judges, judicial officers, and district and county attorneys, who can carry weapons for personal safety in otherwise prohibited locations, such as schools, sporting events or church.
Similarly, Florida lawmakers passed a law in October that prohibits capitol police from asking gun owners to surrender their firearms upon entrance.
Morgan Cullen, an analyst with the National Conference on State Legislatures (NCSL), says state capitol security budgets have increased exponentially since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Each new outburst of violence, like the Giffords shooting, raises questions about how much security is enough.
"Any time an incident happens, especially with a public politician, that always raises some questions about security," Cullen said.
While it is not clear how many lawmakers actually carry weapons to their assemblies, according to NCSL data, 25 state capitols have walk-through metal detectors, with many also having hand-held metal detectors and X-ray machines.
Oklahoma Representative Mike Ritze, who sponsored a bill allowing conceal-carry owners to bring guns to church, says he feels protected at the statehouse knowing others besides him may be armed.
"We have members of the legislature who are retired law enforcement within a few feet of me, so it's very secure here," Ritze said.
In Kentucky, Representative Sal Santoro taps his skills as a former state trooper to assess his environment wherever he is.
"Since the incident in Arizona, I'm more aware of my surroundings," he said.
"The way people are these days, they're very unhappy. They're mad at the government, they're not working, they don't have money, they don't have jobs -- but the government can only do so much."
Brian Wyant, a criminal justice professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia, sees a "low probability" that state lawmakers will fall victim to violence, as violent crime in the US has dropped over the past two decades.
Instead, he said the trend in armed public officials is likely linked to the "psychological benefit" of people feeling safer because they are packing a weapon.