Metal detectors and bag checks are coming to Oregon’s Capitol

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Jan. 13, 2022 8:28 p.m.

It’s the first time such stringent security measures have been used in the famously accessible statehouse.

In order to gain access to Oregon's Capitol, visitors and staff will soon have to pass through new security checkpoints.

In order to gain access to Oregon's Capitol, visitors and staff will soon have to pass through new security checkpoints.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Oregon’s stately state Capitol is about to get some not-so-elegant additions.


Alongside the intricate marbles and just off the cavernous rotunda, visitors will soon be greeted by metal detectors and X-ray machines that peer into their bags.

In what leading lawmakers and state police say is a necessary change, the state’s famously accessible Capitol is joining the ranks of city halls, courthouses, airports and plenty of other statehouses that employ serious security.

“In order to better ensure the safety of the public, employees, tenants and Legislators in the Capitol, we will be implementing security checkpoints at select entry points to the building,” an email from legislative administrators to Capitol staff and lawmakers said Wednesday. “Anyone entering the Capitol will be required to pass through a security checkpoint.”

The new measures follow a 2020 incident in which a Republican lawmaker allowed armed demonstrators into the locked building, and the passage of a bill last year bans all firearms in the Capitol. Prior to the passage of that bill, Senate Bill 554, holders of concealed handgun licenses were allowed to carry guns in the statehouse.

Details of exactly how the new system will work are still being worked out. For instance, Legislative Administrator Brett Hanes said Thursday that officials haven’t yet determined how staff, lawmakers and others with round-the-clock access to the Capitol will be screened outside of normal business hours. They’re also not sure whether security will be expanded once entrances such as the building’s hulking revolving doors — currently closed due to construction — are reopened.

What is clear is that the days when members of the public and officials could step breezily into the heart of Oregon governance, often with barely a glance from security officers, are ending. Machinery is being installed next week at four separate entrances, two accessible to the public, two for lawmakers and staff only. The new protocols will begin on Jan. 27, several days before this year’s legislative session is scheduled to begin.

According to the email sent to staff on Wednesday, X-ray machines for checking bags will only be placed at public entrances. Doors used only by lawmakers and staff will feature metal detectors.

The floor of the Oregon state House has desks arrayed in a semi-circle with people seated at some of them.

Democrats sit idle on the Oregon House floor as they await confirmation of a quorum with nearly all Republicans absent on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Sam Stites / OPB

With the move, Oregon will join at least 33 other states that have installed metal detectors in their Capitols, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The organization declined to share its list Thursday, citing security concerns.

“The addition of this equipment and screening process will bring the security of the Capitol up to levels commonly seen at courthouses around the State,” Oregon State Police Capt. Stephanie Bigman said in an email. “This will in no way restrict access to the public, but will assist in making sure every citizen is safe while in the building.”

In some states, talk of adding security checkpoints in capitol buildings has proven controversial over the years, with some complaining such moves are an impediment to unfettered government access.

Washington State briefly installed metal detectors in its capitol building in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but scrapped them not long after. And last year, two Republican members of Congress filed a lawsuit challenging the use of metal detectors in the U.S. Capitol.

But in Oregon, news of the beefed-up security has so far drawn little reaction — even from those who most fiercely opposed the new gun ban in the building.

As lawmakers were debating SB 554 last year, some Republican senators insisted they would not cease carrying concealed weapons, regardless of the law.

“I’ll be darned if I’m going to be a sitting duck for a person who wants to come in and start shooting,” state Sen. Fred Girod, R-Lyons, said at the time. “It’s just not right.”

Girod was not immediately available Thursday to discuss whether his concerns were addressed by the new security measures, his office said. Messages to House and Senate Republican offices, which were stridently opposed to the new gun law, were not returned.

At least one advocate of the gun ban cheered the move. State Rep. Lisa Reynolds, D-Portland, tweeted Wednesday that she “will feel safer in February” as a result of tighter security.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, one of the officials with most say in Capitol safety, declined to discuss the new steps. But he told KGW, which first reported on the matter, that they are partly the result of sharply divided national politics that have spurred extreme actions like the 2020 incursion at the state Capitol.

“I feel bad about it, very bad, because I love the fact that Oregon had probably the last open Capitol in the nation,” Courtney told the station. “But now, here we go.”