DENVER – When state representatives debate gun-control bills in the House today, some of them will come armed with more than a quick wit and a law degree.
They’ll be packing heat.
For years, the presence of concealed guns in the state Capitol – supposedly a gun-free zone – has been something that legislators know about but rarely talk about. But during this year’s debate about gun control, a couple of them have hinted at the open secret.
The most recent time was Wednesday, when a University of Colorado student testified for a bill to ban concealed guns from campus, saying that students feel intimidated from debating issues when others are armed.
Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, questioned her.
“Do you understand that there are several guns in this room?” Holbert said.
At the time, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith was in the room and was armed, but no other uniformed police were there, and it did not appear that any plainclothes state troopers were at the hearing.
In an interview, Holbert said he does not carry a concealed weapon, but he knows lawmakers from both parties and both chambers who do.
“I think I know who in this room I would want to be running to if something bad happened,” Holbert said.
Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, is aware that some of his colleagues are armed.
“Since I started here, I think I’ve always known that members had guns on the floor,” Ferrandino said.
Ferrandino, who does not carry a gun himself, said as long as legislators are following the concealed-weapons law, then it’s not a problem.
“I think it’s been commonly known that members have done that, and it hasn’t been raised as an issue,” he said.
State law prohibits carrying a gun in the Capitol “without legal authority.” The law also prohibits concealed weapons from any public buildings that have permanent security. That includes the Capitol.
The officer in charge of the State Patrol’s Capitol security unit did not return messages seeking comment about the patrol’s policy on armed legislators.
Through a spokesman, Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, said there is no legal exemption for members of the Legislature to carry a concealed gun in the Capitol.
All Capitol doors are locked except two, where state troopers and guards screen visitors through metal detectors. But employees at the building, including state lawmakers, can enter the locked doors with either a code or an electronic identification card.
State police put up the metal detectors in 2007, after an armed man tried to kill former Gov. Bill Ritter.
In that incident, a mentally disturbed man named Aaron Snyder showed up at the Capitol in a rented tuxedo and proclaimed himself “the emperor of Colorado.” A state trooper shot him to death when he tried to get into the governor’s office.
Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, was returning from lunch when she walked into the scene of the shooting that had happened moments earlier.
Roberts said she does not feel safe in the Capitol, even though the State Patrol does a good job at security. She sometimes worries about the balcony that hangs over three walls of the Senate.
“We have those metal detectors, but I think we’re sitting ducks on the Senate floor and the House floor,” Roberts said.
But she takes some comfort in knowing some of her colleagues are armed.
“Yes, I feel better because of it. I always said I like sitting on my side of the aisle because we have extra protection should someone decide to shoot the fish in the barrel,” Roberts said.
Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said he is one of several legislators with a concealed-weapon permit. In a Thursday morning interview on the Senate floor, he declined to say whether he was armed at the moment.
Neither Roberts nor Cadman would name names, but they left little doubt that there are guns on the floor of the Senate.
“A lot of us have concealed-carry permits. Who knows who’s carrying at any given time?” Cadman said.
That’s an argument that concealed-carry advocates make often: A building is safer when bad guys think some of the occupants are armed but they don’t know which ones.
Gun-control opponents say “gun-free zones” are invitations to mass shooters, who know they won’t face armed opposition.
But even though legislators are carrying their guns in the Capitol, ordinary citizens must disarm before they enter the doors.
Cadman said security at the building is “prudent” and is for everyone’s good, including visitors and schoolchildren.
The Capitol can be a volatile place, he said.
“Political theaters like this do attract folks who may have had enough of their government,” Cadman said.