Panel backs letting staffers have guns in Statehouse

Legislative employees could carry guns as they go about their duties at the Indiana Statehouse under a National Rifle Association-backed measure that is advancing.

The House’s public policy committee held a hearing on Sen. Jim Tomes’ bill Wednesday and many lawmakers spoke favorably of the measure, including committee Chairman Ben Smaltz. Last year the Senate approved a similar bill from Tomes, a Wadesville Republican, but it did not get a hearing in the House.

Senate Bill 43 is part of a broader effort by gun rights supporters to chip away at gun laws and restrictions in the state. Supporters say they are restoring a constitutionally protected right, while opponents say there are legally sound and compelling public safety reasons to place limits on firearms.

State law already allows lawmakers to be armed and the bill would extend that right to employees of the Senate and House, as well as those who work for the Legislative Services Agency.

Many employees work late hours, especially during the annual legislative session, and often leave after armed police are gone for the day.

“I believe they deserve the same protection and respect of their rights,” said Rep. Jim Lucas, a Republican from Seymour who is sponsoring the bill in the House.

But Democrats say there could be unintended consequences if the bill becomes law. Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, a Fort Wayne Democrat, said a gun could possibly get into the wrong hands if a staffer were to leave it in a desk drawer or office.

Some mishaps involving lawmakers who carry guns have occurred in other states.

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

Later the same month but 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.

Several supporters of the Indiana measure mentioned a shooting that occurred on a Saturday night in January outside the Statehouse, which wounded an 18-year-old man. But Democratic Rep. Charlie Brown, of Gary, said one incident does not justify the bill.

“We’re going to set a public policy based on one incident?” Brown said.

The bill’s backers say not all employees would choose to be armed.

“They don’t have the luxury of parking just outside the building. They have to walk two or three blocks to a garage to get their vehicle,” Tomes said. “That’s why it’s essential that we grant them this same ability to protect themselves.”

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