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Senate to allow firearm for Sergeant-at-Arms


The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Leaders in the West Virginia Senate have decided to post an armed guard in the chamber during sessions.

Andrew Palmer, one of several sergeants-at-arms employed by the Senate, has been authorized to carry a gun while the Senate is conducting business.

“We just live in a different world than we used to,” said Senate Clerk Clark Barnes.

Barnes said Senate leadership had been discussing whether it was necessary to have an armed sergeant-at-arms in the Senate chamber for some time. Following the fatal shooting of a Canadian guard at a war memorial on Parliament Hill in Ottowa, Canada in 2014, “I felt it was even more important that we increase our security role,” Barnes said.

“I have made every effort to secure our personnel, our members and our guests here at the Capitol,” he said.

Armed West Virginia State Police troopers and Capitol Police officers are stationed in the Statehouse at most times during the regular legislative session. But those in favor of the Senate having its own armed security say the troopers and police officers can’t be everywhere.

Arming those tasked with keeping order in state legislative bodies is becoming more common. Last year, officials in New Hampshire authorized guards at the New Hampshire State House to carry guns upon completion of a three-week training course.

“We’re looking at our vulnerabilities,” House Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff told the Concord Monitornewspaper at the time. “It’s a different world we live in. These are prudent steps.”

“It’s good that security will be armed,” said New Hampshire’s House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff. “It’s somewhat ironic that we allow people into the State House armed, but our own security force is not.”

Guards in the California Assembly have been armed since 2011. Before that, sergeants-at-arms in the chamber were only armed in cases of emergency. Members of the California Highway Patrol had previously been the only ones authorized to carry guns in the California legislature, according to media reports.

A few people at the West Virginia Capitol are concerned about Palmer’s training and qualifications for carrying a gun.

“My concern is never anyone carrying a gun,” said Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. “I carry a gun, occasionally, but everybody thinks they can handle a gun in a crisis situation. Very few have been tested.”

He added that he would not object to a properly trained and vetted sergeant-at-arms carrying a gun in the Senate chamber.

According to his resume, Barnes said, Palmer served with contractors KBR Halliburton in Afghanistan from 2004-2011 and worked for and ran his own security company in Crete. Palmer has continued training since coming to the United States, Barnes said.

“I would say he has an extensive background in security,” Barnes said.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, approves of having an armed sergeant-at-arms.

“I think a lot of people would have already assumed an officer charged with defending the chamber and the public would be armed,” Carmichael said. “We thought it was necessary for us to be prepared to defend innocent life.”

Keith Morgan, president of the gun rights advocacy group the West Virginia Citizens Defense League, said he does not have a problem with an armed guard in the Senate chamber — provided ordinary citizens are afforded the same right. Civilians are currently banned from carrying guns in the Statehouse.

“We are actually pleased that the Clerk of the Senate decided to allow a single citizen to be armed with no more than a concealed handgun license as qualification,” Morgan said. “We fully expect a Senate-backed bill in the 2018 session to extend that recognition of our rights to the rest of us. If it’s good for one, it’s good for all.”

But Steve Harrison, clerk of the House of Delegates, said House leadership doesn’t see the need to have an armed sergeant-at-arms.

“The state troopers are usually in the vestibule or outside the door when we’re in session,” Harrison said. He also said visitors to the Capitol have to pass through security checkpoints with metal detectors before being allowed in the building.

“We feel that’s sufficient at this time,” Harrison said.

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