Tighter screening for America's city halls?

New York attack highlights question of whether some should be exempt from scans.

The handgun was stuffed inside a teddy bear carried by a nine-year-old boy. Airport screeners in Orlando, Fla., caught it as the child went through security earlier this month. His parents said the stuffed animal had been given to the child by a stranger.

This week it was a New Hampshire state legislator who was stopped in an airport with a .38-caliber handgun in his carry-on bag. He said it was a matter of absent-mindedness: He'd simply forgotten to remove it.

In New York City Wednesday, the gunman who shot and killed a councilman did make it through screeners with a weapon - by knowing the right person. He got to bypass the metal detectors because he walked in with James Davis - the councilman he ultimately killed.

All three incidents show that, despite heightened vigilance in the United States since 9/11, people are still carrying guns into some of the nation's most protected public spaces - consciously and unconsciously.

In some cases, they are being caught by security screeners. In others, they are able to bypass the system - occasionally, as in New York, with tragic consequences.

The breach there and in other cities is raising the question of whether even tougher screening measures should be installed in government buildings and other public places. More specifically, it is highlighting the complex issue of whether certain classes of citizens - VIPs or children or grandmothers, for instance - really should get hassle-free treatment at security checkpoints.

"There's a great temptation for senior people to say, 'Look, this takes so much time, and I'm so busy, that let's just skip it in this case,' " says Dave McIntyre of the ANSER Institute For Homeland Security, referring to New York's policy of allowing certain people to bypass metal detectors.

But many experts believe such exceptions could lead to an even bigger danger than the isolated violence that erupted Wednesday. "The suggestion that our screeners should pay less attention to grandmas and babies is like giving a free pass to terrorists," said federal transportation security chief James Loy after the Orlando incident.

IN THE two airport incidents, it was the fact that screeners don't make exceptions that allowed them to spot the guns. And it was the failure to catch the gun at City Hall that led Mayor Michael Bloomberg, within hours of the shooting, to declare that from now on every one who enters the building - including the mayor - will go through security.

To already-skittish New Yorkers, the commotion there initially set off rumors of terrorism. Police swarmed City Hall, the building was cordoned off, bridges were closed, and subways were skipping stops in case the gunman had gotten away.

But it turned out to be a personal feud, almost harking back to the days of 18th-century politics. The gunman, Othniel Askew, had a long-simmering dispute with Mr. Davis. He got into City Hall simply by asking to accompany the councilman inside. Mr. Askew was killed by a security guard after he shot Davis.

Ironically, Davis, an ardent campaigner against urban violence, was set that day to introduce a bill to prevent workplace violence. Mayor Bloomberg, who was in City Hall at the time of the shooting, viewed the incident broadly and ominously as "an attack on democracy."

But security experts were also quick to put it into perspective. "There's a world of difference between a guy who brings a gun into the airport and a nuclear weapon going off in one of our big cities," says Colonel McIntyre.

If we were to try to prevent every single handgun incident like this, "We will both bankrupt ourselves and convince ourselves that we are failures," he says.

And too much security - checking every shirt pocket of every person - has downsides, including longer waits and restricted movement for people used to moving unchecked. Murray Schechter, a New York consultant, says that after 9/11, it took him 90 minutes to get through security at work. "It just wasn't tenable," he said after the City Hall shooting. "But do I feel unsafe? No, not really. There are 8 million people in this city."

That tug-of-war, between openness and security, is particularly acute in the nation's government buildings. By nature, they're more likely to be targets. But America was also built on the

idea that government belongs to the people, and its leaders have been loath to discourage citizens from entering buildings that are theirs. "The steps of City Hall have always been considered New York's town square, where anyone could come and complain about anything - and usually did," says Ken Fisher, a former councilman and now a lawyer at Phillips Nizer. "The notion that that accessibility would open the door to violence is just appalling."

Mr. Fisher remembers when security was tightened during his years as a councilman, by Mayor Giuliani. At the time, many of his colleagues were upset, worried about losing that town-square feel. He supported the measures, he says, because "people in public life are subject to these kind of threats, because politics evokes strong emotions in people."

Still, he worries the shooting will make people even more skittish. "Aside from the human tragedy, it's one more blow to the hometown flavor that City Hall used to have. It's a small, intimate building. This is going to diminish that sense of intimacy."

Leslie Talmadge contributed to this report from New York.

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