Nebraska governor opposed to metal detectors at capitol

LINCOLN -- The State Capitol -- which elected officials often call "the citizens' house" -- ought to remain open and accessible, without metal detectors, if possible, the state's top citizen said Wednesday.

"It's about freedom," Gov. Dave Heineman said.

The topic of security was raised after Attorney General Jon Bruning, at a press conference Tuesday to announce his 2009 anti-crime initiatives, held up an assault rifle and questioned how someone could walk into the State Capitol with such a weapon.

A Bruning aide later acknowledged that she had notified the Nebraska State Patrol, which oversees Capitol security, that several guns would be brought into the building.

But Bruning's actions revived a question that has been debated for years: Should metal detectors be installed at the entrances to the State Capitol?

Currently, 20 security officers walk the halls and grounds and monitor security cameras that scan the building and its four public entrances.

Metal detectors -- which have become commonplace at larger courthouses across the state -- are in use only outside the chambers of the Nebraska Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.

They were installed in 1995, the year 168 people were killed in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The Iowa Capitol has had metal detectors and X-ray scanners at three entrances for seven years. Twenty-two other state capitols also employ metal detectors, according to a survey last year by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"I think most people appreciate the feeling of safety. Not all of the people who come to the Capitol are in a really good mood," said Courtney Greene, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Public Safety Department who formerly worked in the Capitol.

But Nebraska officials have resisted the idea of metal detectors in Lincoln. They might necessitate reducing the number of public entrances, and large school groups would clog and overwhelm checkpoints, the officials fear.

Heineman said security has been beefed up in the past couple of years, though he could not detail the changes.

"There's greater monitoring of people coming in and out of the Capitol than ever before," he said. "We don't take anything for granted, but we'd like to avoid going to metal detectors if we can."

About $1.2 million was budgeted this fiscal year for Capitol security in Lincoln, which included $84,000 for new software.

By comparison, Iowa budgeted $850,000 this year for the 16 security officers who patrol the Capitol and the Iowa Judicial Branch Building, which houses the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

Two state senators at the Lincoln press conference Tuesday -- Scott Lautenbaugh and Mike Friend, both of Omaha -- expressed interest in at least looking at the matter of installing metal detectors.

Lautenbaugh said the Nebraska State Patrol -- which adds two uniformed troopers to the Capitol detail when the Legislature is in session -- is doing what has been requested by lawmakers.

"The question is, are they doing enough?" he said. "I'm not prepared to answer that."