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With Florida Capitol no longer asking gun owners to secure firearms, Senate installs panic buttons

TALLAHASSEE — Metal detectors at the entrance of the state Capitol help protect Florida lawmakers.

Security personnel watch over every committee meeting.

But two months after a new law made it easier to bring concealed guns into the Capitol, the Senate security force has installed special alert buttons on the phone of every senator and staffer.

At the touch of a button, an unseen officer in the Senate Sergeant at Arms Office can instantly monitor a conversation in Senate offices and respond if needed.

"Instead of reversing what we did, we're resorting to panic buttons," said Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich of Weston, who opposed the new gun law. "It's unnerving. My staff is very nervous."

For years, Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents asked concealed weapons permit holders entering the Capitol to surrender their weapons and store them in a police lock box. If they refused, FDLE agents would notify the sergeant's office, which would assign a guard to follow the person through the building.

But a law that took effect Oct. 1 pre-empts city and county governments from regulating guns except where the state expressly allows it. That includes the state Capitol, where guns are prohibited only in the House and Senate chambers and committee rooms.

So Capitol Police no longer ask gun owners to secure their firearms. And they're not alerting the House and Senate sergeants, who are civilian political appointees.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos disputed that the buttons were a result of the new gun law. Instead, he said the feature has been available since the new phone system was installed five years ago.

"It had been long planned," Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said. "I guess it's just finally getting instituted."

But several Democrats said the timing was more than a coincidence.

A safety course recently offered to state employees by Capitol Police included an update on the law's "impact on the Capitol" and "how to respond to an active shooter situation."

The House sergeant at arms is exploring the possibility of installing a similar feature on phones in its chamber's offices.

"It makes it difficult on us," House Sergeant at Arms Earnest Sumner said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed, and we're going to be a lot more observant."

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said the alert buttons are "better than nothing."

"I would prefer if nobody was allowed in this building with a gun," she said.

The Capitol building is naturally a place where emotions run high as the state's most controversial political issues are debated, often with large crowds in attendance. Every year brings a handful of incidents where an irate citizen or two is escorted from a committee room, an office or the public gallery in the House or Senate.

There is rarely a hostile situation. In 1991, a Florida State University student named Marshall Ledbetter triggered a police standoff when he barricaded himself in the Capitol and demanded 666 jelly doughnuts and jalapeno peppers. It ended peacefully.

More recently, lawmakers had constant security concerns during debate over whether to intervene in Terri Schiavo's medical care in 2003. Capitol security was an issue again after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"And we all know what happened in Arizona," said Rich, referring to the near-fatal shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a shopping center.

Other lawmakers said a concealed firearms license shows a gun owner can be trusted to appropriately use the weapon.

"I'm not worried about it," said Sen. Greg Evers, a Panhandle Republican who has such a license.

Concealed weapons permits can be given to any Floridian 21 years or older who has never been convicted of a felony, violated drug laws or abused alcohol. A licensee must also pass any one of a number of safety courses.

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

With Florida Capitol no longer asking gun owners to secure firearms, Senate installs panic buttons 12/06/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 6, 2011 10:26pm]
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