A New London lawmaker wants to make sure lawmakers are able to make tough decisions that’s why he’s proposing legislation that would require the state to borrow money to install metal detectors at the entrance of the state Capitol and the Legislative Office Building.
Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, said his proposal was inspired by a Judiciary Committee hearing last year when an individual unhappy with what he heard at the meeting came back two days later and was “belligerent to the committee.” The man was subsequently charged with interfering with the legislative process, but Hewett said his behavior demonstrated that there are “ticking time bombs out there.”
Here’s a copy of the letter Hewett drafted in 2012.
With gun control legislation topping this year’s legislative agenda after the school shooting in Newtown, Hewett’s desire to install metal detectors may receive even more attention.
“This is the people’s building and we make tough decisions, but I want to make sure I’m safe in the building,” Hewett said.
He said the proposal is not a commentary in any way on the demeanor or character of gun owners. He said he just wants to make sure that the worst that can happen in the building is a fist fight.
“If someone can kill 20 kids, then they won’t think twice about killing 20 legislators,” Hewett said.
The legislature already has two portable metal detectors it purchased two years ago with grant money. They have never been used and state Capitol Police declined a request to photograph them.
The portable metal detectors can be installed at the entrance to committee hearing rooms and would need to be manned on each side by two security guards and one police officer.
But the state Capitol Police don’t have the power to decide whether they should be installed for specific hearings. That’s left up to the four leaders of the Democratic and Republican caucuses and the Legislative Management Committee.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said he’s been a state lawmaker for 20 years and hopes metal detectors aren’t a necessary part of life at the Capitol.
“There’s always the hope there’s no need for that,” Cafero said. “It takes away from democracy.”
But he sees the other side of the argument and the desire to make the building a safe space for discussion.
“I don’t know if I’ve formed an opinion on it yet,” Cafero said.
He added that he doesn’t know if the building would be big enough to accommodate the lines that would form to get into the two largest hearing rooms, which are both on the same floor. He envisioned lines up and down the first and second floor of the Legislative Office Building. He said having them at the main entrances like Hewett’s proposal calls for would be different and is worth a discussion.
Speaker-elect Brendan Sharkey said he also hadn’t thought about the issue until he was asked to comment on it Monday.
He said he will wait to hear the discussion as the legislation makes its way through the legislative process.
“This is a well-meaning response to what happened in Newtown,” Sharkey said. “However, we need to be careful not to overreact.”
Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney said that since Sept. 11, 2001, the number of access points to the state Capitol have been limited.
He described his feelings about installing metal detectors as “mixed.” He said he would like to keep the buildings as open as possible, but he understands there’s a need to balance openness with public safety.
“We are still in the majority of state Capitols that don’t have metal detectors,” McKinney said. “I would like to see if we can keep it that way.”
The legislature controls both the state Capitol and the Legislative Office Building.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has an office on the second floor of the state Capitol, but unlike lawmakers he has a security detail of state troopers. Asked about Hewett’s proposal at an unrelated press conference, Malloy said he would not oppose it.
If the metal detectors were installed at the entrance it’s likely the state would have to increase the amount of money it spends on its police force and security personnel. There is no fiscal note attached yet to the legislation, so it’s unclear exactly how much the measure would cost the state. A dollar amount will be added if the legislation clears the first few legislative hurdles.
Some visitors to the Capitol may be surprised the state does not ask them to go through a metal detector. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, there are metal detectors installed at 23 state Capitols, including those in New York and Massachusetts.
Some state Capitols screen all visitors with the metal detectors, while some — like California — exempt state employees and legislators.