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Firearms Should Be Banned from State Capitols. Here’s Why.

Armed protests have underscored the need to ban guns from capitol complexes.

The attack on the United States Capitol on January 6th was an egregious assault on our democracy—and it was far from the only one. 

In the weeks following the 2020 election, the Washington State Capitol in Olympia saw a surge in demonstrations as armed individuals protested election results and the closure of schools and businesses. In December, these tensions boiled over into multiple violent clashes between heavily armed protestors on the state capitol campus. Ultimately, a place where laws are debated became a place that saw three separate instances of shots fired, with one person injured.

Last month, the Washington state senate took decisive action to stop similar tragedies from happening again. Members voted to ban the open carry of firearms on the state capitol campus and at demonstrations on public property. 

Washington is one of many states revisiting its public carry laws in the wake of the January 6th US Capitol attack. January 6th was the capstone on a terrible year for democracy as state capitols faced armed protests against gun safety laws, stay-at-home orders, and racial justice. We’ve tracked over 50 instances of armed protesters using firearms to chill free speech and harass and intimidate legislators over the past year, including attacks on Michigan, Oregon, and Iowa’s state capitols. 

Legislators across the country should follow Washington State’s lead and take meaningful measures to ban dangerous weapons from our democratic institutions. 

Guns in the Public Square

Several states currently prohibit or limit the carrying of loaded weapons in politically charged settings where the presence of firearms is particularly dangerous, such as polling places and state capitols. These location-based gun prohibitions have traditionally applied to guns that are carried openly or concealed, regardless of whether a gun owner has a concealed carry permit (CCW). However, some states have loopholes that allow the open carry of firearms without a permit.

Despite the gun lobby’s claims that “gun-free zones” invite mass shootings, no credible research supports this claim. Since 1966, 90% of all mass shootings with six or more deaths took place in locations where guns were allowed or armed security was present. Additionally, less than one percent of individuals successfully defend themselves with a firearm against violent crimes.

Guns in the public square have been historically employed as instruments of hate, with white supremacists and other extremists using firearms to intimidate and provoke violence at rallies, houses of worship, and campaign offices. Our recently released report, How America’s Gun Laws Fuel Armed Hate, explores this dangerous phenomenon and its policy solutions. 

Divergent Approaches towards Public Safety

While some states are taking courageous action to restrict the public carry of firearms in state capitols, others are putting their residents at even greater risk of gun violence.

As we explored in our last edition of Gun Law Trendwatch, legislators in some state assemblies have moved to loosen public carry restrictions, falsely claiming the presence of firearms will keep their statehouses safer. In Montana and Utah, laws were recently signed expanding capitol visitors’ ability to carry a concealed firearm into their statehouses. Similar bills to expand permitless concealed carry on capitol campuses have been introduced in Texas, South Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Alabama, and Georgia.

However, many states have recognized the urgency to keep their capitols safe in light of this past year’s violence. In addition to the actions taken in Washington State, Michigan also banned the open carry of guns in its capitol after the January attack on Capitol Hill. Now, several other states have proposed legislation to prohibit firearms in state capitol buildings and polling locations: 

  • Two bills in Virginia—HB 2295 and SB 1381—would prohibit guns in the state capitol and state-owned buildings and are awaiting the governor’s signature.  Another bill passed by the legislature, HB 2081, prohibits guns within 40 feet of a polling place or an election office where votes are being counted.
  • Vermont proposed expanding its current statehouse ban on guns to other government buildings.
  • Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, and Oklahoma have also introduced legislation to ban guns from state capitols or other government property.

This past year, we witnessed historic levels of gun sales and a surge in violent rhetoric alongside a surge in gun violence itself. The violent demonstrations we’ve seen around the country underscore the fact that increased presence of firearms in public spaces will only make the return to post-pandemic life more dangerous. 

State legislators should follow Washington State’s lead and stand up for a free and fair democracy that operates without fear of armed intimidation.

BROWSE LAWS

For over 25 years, Giffords Law Center has been the nation’s preeminent gun law resource. Our digital library contains extensive information on state and federal gun laws, broken down by policy and by state.

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