State senator wants legislators OK’d to be armed

A late-night, rambling email scared state Rep. Franklin Foil enough to call law enforcement. The sender ended up in jail for allegedly threatening the south Baton Rouge Republican following a misunderstanding about legislation.

In California, a threat went even further. Angry about a state senator’s effort to restrict assault weapons, a man reportedly vowed to kill the politician and assembled the ingredients for a bomb.

Officers who arrested him retrieved a loaded gun from his car.

Incidents like that convinced state Sen. Bret Allain to take Louisiana a step further in embracing gun-friendly laws. Allain, R-Franklin, wants legislators to be able to pack a pistol in the State Capitol chambers and committee rooms.

“We make votes here all the time that are sometimes controversial, that sometimes upset groups of people. I think that legislators as a whole should have the same right to protect themselves as judges and DAs have,” he said.

Allain submitted Senate Bill 651 just before the filing deadline for new legislation. The bill must be debated and passed in the next two months to reach the governor’s desk.

Some legislators quietly believe proposals such as Allain’s bill are a symptom of Louisiana’s going a little gun-crazy.

After all, security guards are stationed in the chambers and committee rooms. Members of the public walk through metal detectors to get into the State Capitol. During sessions, armed State Police troopers patrol the corridors.

Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, joked that the only thing he is quick on the draw with is a cellphone.

“I come up here with my phone ready to dial 911, and that’s it,” Ritchie said during a smoke break on the State Capitol steps, not far from where a BB gun-toting man reached the building’s front doors last year.

The man surrendered his gun to security and fled.

Other legislators don’t have a problem with what Allain is proposing, especially since a few probably keep a handgun tucked into a holster underneath their suit jackets already. All Allain’s bill would do is make it legal.

Other legislators keep a gun legally stowed in their cars and worry about what might happen between the State Capitol and the parking lot.

Rep. Joseph Lopinto, who chairs the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice, said people know who he is. He said they approach him in restaurants to talk about the goings-on at the State Capitol. Most of the time, the banter is friendly. Other times, it gets a little hairy.

“You should see the emails I get. I have a controversial committee. I’ve never felt threatened where I needed to pull my gun in the last six years, but there are crazy people out there,” said Lopinto, R-Metairie.

Allain’s bill includes a few restrictions. A legislator would need a current statewide handgun permit and annual firearms training.

Similar provisions already exist for judges, constables, coroners, district attorneys, prosecutors and justices of the peace. Retired judges also get consideration.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he takes security precautions, especially after a Baker man allegedly posted on Facebook last year that he had a sniper rifle for the prosecutor.

Moore said he sees no reason why legislators should not be allowed to protect themselves.

“It doesn’t cause me a great deal of heartburn,” he said, referring to the proposal.

The State Capitol doors are decorated with warnings that weapons are prohibited. Other capitols are more lenient.

Legislators are allowed to carry firearms to work in Kentucky, where a lawmaker fired a gun inside her office by mistake last year.

At the Texas State Capitol in Austin, a gun permit acts like FastPass at Walt Disney World. It allows permit holders to bypass long security lines.

In Baton Rouge this year, legislators will debate whether to allow those with concealed weapon permits to carry their guns into restaurants where drinks are mixed.

A 2012 constitutional amendment made the right to bear arms a “fundamental” one in Louisiana. In 2013, legislators created a lifetime concealed-handgun permit.

The state’s churches and schools once were firearms-free zones. Now concealed-weapon permit holders can settle into pews with their pistols for Sunday worship as long as church leadership agrees. Off-duty law enforcement officers can tote weapons onto school campuses.

Pointing to a couch in the back of the Senate chamber, Allain indicated where legislators’ wives sit during session.

He said his wife often accompanies him to the Capitol for controversial and emotional votes.

“I want to protect my family and colleagues as much as myself,” Allain said.

Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City, said he got death threats after he successfully sponsored legislation requiring convicted sex offenders to disclose their prosecutions on social media sites such as Facebook. He said legislators are sitting ducks during the session.

“There are people who are unstable. We’re targets because of what we do,” he said.

Lopinto, a former police officer, said he would rather have the right to defend himself than take the time to fetch a state trooper from around the corner.

Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said he keeps a gun in his car and several in his home. He said he is fine with allowing legislators to arm themselves as long as they undergo weapons training.

“With incidents that are occurring around the country at state capitols, I can understand why he has the legislation. Maybe I can be supportive,” White said.

As for Foil, who was on the receiving end of threats against his office and livelihood after a mix-up over the content of legislation he was sponsoring, he understands Allain’s concerns but feels comfortable with Capitol security handling any threats.

“I actually am not a gun owner so I’m somewhat indifferent,” Foil said.