FRANKFORT— Kentucky has seen a surge in people carrying guns into the Capitol, a legal activity here and in at least 10 other states, but one that is worrisome to critics.
More than 50 people brought guns into Kentucky's Capitol over the past three months, at a time when the legislature was involved in heated debates on a variety of emotional issues, including proposed new restrictions on illegal immigrants and on mountaintop removal coal mining, both of which resulted in angry demonstrations.
Gun rights proponents consider it no big deal that people can stroll through the Capitol armed. But critics believe they should have to leave their weapons at home.
"The Capitol should be a safe place, where legislators can perform their responsibility as representatives of the democracy, to debate issues with openness and honesty and without fear," said Democratic state Rep. Jim Wayne of Louisville. "When we have people carrying guns into the Capitol, I think that's a threat to legislators. It's a very dangerous situation. We're debating very volatile issues sometimes. People who have mental illnesses or people whose minds are twisted through substances could be in the gallery, and we could be at risk."
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State police documented 53 instances in which visitors carried guns into the Capitol between Jan. 1 and March 31, more than twice the number that had been brought inside in the previous year and a half, a review by The Associated Press found.
Brian Malte, director of mobilization for the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, called that "a recipe for disaster."
"We're strongly opposed to carrying loaded guns, whether openly displayed or concealed, into sensitive places like state capitols," he said.
Most states don't allow visitors to carry guns into their state capitols. Among those that do, Kentucky is one of the least restrictive. The only restriction in Kentucky is that people attending public meetings in the Capitol openly display their weapons.
The National Rifle Association, which tracks restrictions on guns in state Capitols, said New Hampshire, New Mexico and Utah have no restrictions on visitors bringing in guns. Florida allows only people with permits to carry guns in that state capitol, and then only with a police escort. Idaho bars guns in areas of the capitol controlled by the governor. Minnesota allows people to bring in guns if they have permission from state police. Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Washington allow people into their capitols with guns only if they have permits to carry.
In Kentucky, demonstrators took part in a series of emotionally charged protests inside and outside the Capitol during this year's legislative meetings. One brought hundreds of people angry that lawmakers were considering new restrictions on illegal immigrants. Another brought an even larger crowd of people angry that lawmakers weren't taking action to ban mountaintop removal coal mining. While both demonstrations were boisterous, both also were peaceful.
Information provided to The Associated Press under the Open Records Act showed that 14 of the people who brought guns into the Kentucky Capitol were off-duty police officers. The remaining 39 were civilians. Of those, 25 carried their guns openly, and 14 had their guns concealed.
Only 23 people had brought guns into the Capitol between June 30, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2010.
State Rep. Sal Santoro, R-Florence, said most Kentucky lawmakers favor allowing people to carry guns into the Capitol, saying the constitutional right to bear arms should especially apply in the state's center of government.
"I have no problem with it at all," said Santoro, a former state police trooper. "We need to honor the Second Amendment."
With his .45 discreetly holstered, Doug Grinnell toured the Kentucky Capitol in February with a group of Hardin County students who strolled the marbled hallways, chatter echoing upward into the picturesque dome of the 100-year-old structure.
"I felt honored to be able to carry in the Capitol," said Grinnell, an Elizabethtown businessman. "I thought, man, this is America. This is the way it should be."
Grinnell said he expected to have to leave his weapon with security officers when he went into the Capitol. But when he told one of the officers that he was carrying a concealed weapon, Grinnell said they simply recorded his concealed-carry permit information and gave him a red sticker to wear, signifying he had a gun.
"I felt honored," he said. "I felt trusted. I felt proud to be a Kentuckian."