By Mike Ward
Without fanfare, the first step to airport-style security checkpoints was opened Friday at the four entrances to the Texas Capitol.
The visitors and lobbyists must walk through metal detectors and have their purses and briefcases searched. In coming weeks, their belongings will have to go through X-ray machines yet to be installed.
State employees can walk around the checkpoint if they show valid state identification, as can Texans who carry a pistol with a concealed handgun license.
It's perhaps the only public building in the country where pistol-packing average Joes can walk through security undeterred.
The express lane for gun owners is clearly marked: "CHL Holders."
"It's quite intimidating. We've never had to go through this before," said Beth Lord, a retired personnel manager who was visiting the statehouse with her grandchildren.
"If they're going to have security like this, why are they letting some people to come in with guns? That doesn't make too much sense."
Other visitors who came through the checkpoints seemed to agree.
Mark Casey, a Katy engineer who was touring with his family, called the checkpoint policy "bizarre."
"I would hope our officials feel safer in a building where only they are allowed to carry guns," he said. "If terrorists and criminals with guns can't get in, why does anyone need one in here?"
Officials have justified their decision this way: Concealed handgun license holders are required to undergo training and pass a background check — steps that are expected to weed out potential nuts and terrorists.
A number of lobbyists who come and go at the Capitol several times each day — and who have been grousing about the checkpoints for months — say they plan to get concealed handgun permits so they can go through the express lane and save time. They said they do not plan to carry a weapon.
With visitor traffic light Friday, the checkpoints had no lines, and most people were smiling. Along with the checkpoints, more uniformed state troopers were noticeable in the Capitol and on its grounds.
As part of the plan to upgrade Capitol security, officials had said they planned to increase the number of troopers, install dozens of additional surveillance cameras and implement new programs to thwart any terrorist attack.