While security tightens at federal buildings around the country, most private security guards at the federal court house in Spokane have been disarmed, at least temporarily, in a dispute over licenses.
Federal officials last week told guards from Eastern Washington Security Inc. that they could not carry firearms on the job if they did not have a valid state license.
The order came on the same day that details of a possible plot to blow up the court house were revealed in court documents.
Security company officials did not comment about the order, except to say that they have some armed personnel on duty at all times.
The north Spokane firm subcontracts with Professional Services Unified of Tacoma, which has the main contract with the U.S. General Services Administration for armed security guards.
Audrey Gibbons, chief executive officer of PSU, said she could not immediately respond to questions about the dispute.
Since April, the GSA has contracted for guards to supplement court house security. They patrol the grounds during business hours, and guard inside the building when it is closed. Over a 24-hour period, the company has approximately 13 guards on duty.
Until last week, all were armed with their own handguns.
But state law says armed guards must be licensed. So, last week, the GSA told security officers to leave their guns home if they weren’t licensed.
Most weren’t. They now carry radios, but no weapons.
A source familiar with the dispute said the security guards thought they were exempt from the state law because they were working at a federal facility. They have taken the necessary tests and applied for their licenses but have not yet received them because of red tape.
In the wake of last week’s revelations about a possible plot to bomb the local court house, some reportedly are nervous about being unarmed. One even refused to work without a gun.
Tom Kleneski, a spokesman for the federal Marshal’s Service, said the court house is secure. It has other guards inside who are armed during the day. It also houses several law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, with trained law enforcement officers.
“A firearm is a defensive weapon” for a security guard, Kleneski argued. “It’s only a last-resort thing.”
Pat Brown, an administrator with the State Department of Licensing, said processing a license for an armed security guard can take between six and 12 weeks.
Applications must be screened by the Washington state patrol and the FBI, she said.
Those agencies check whether the applicant has been convicted of a felony, or any of the serious misdemeanors that disqualify a person from possessing a gun under state law.
While the licenses are pending, applicants can work as unarmed guards, Brown said. But they can’t carry firearms on the job.
A security company can lose its license for using armed guards who aren’t licensed, she said.
Brown knows of no exemptions for security guards at federal facilities.
Officials with the GSA were unavailable for comment Monday. But Kleneski of the Marshal’s Service said the GSA was merely enforcing the contract it had with the security companies.
Security was beefed up in a hurry after the Oklahoma City bombing, Kleneski said. As federal officials caught up on guard’s background checks, they found some lacked licenses.