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Thursday, Sept. 30, 2004 09:58 pm

Statehouse murder

Up until last week the Capitol had been one of the safest places in Illinois. No one had ever been killed there in its entire history. And then some unbalanced kid stops taking his meds and all hell breaks loose.

William Wozniak, security guard, who had a wife and two kids and a mortgage and a life like everyone else's, was at work on a quiet September afternoon when everything ended. While a handful of tourists idled nearby, a clearly deranged young man opened one of the big glass doors at the north entrance, aimed what appeared to be a shotgun at Wozniak's chest, and fired. Wozniak later died on the operating table. The alleged shooter, Derek Potts, was caught the next day.

Wozniak never had a chance. Statehouse guards aren't authorized to carry guns, but there's been a lot of talk about giving the guards weapons ever since Mr. Wozniak was killed. They ought to have an opportunity to defend themselves in situations like last week's tragic event, so if they receive the proper training and pass all the tests, it sounds like a reasonable idea.

But even if Wozniak had a sidearm it's doubtful that he would have had time to react. The killer drove his car up the circle driveway and parked just a few feet from the north entranceway. He was able to walk up the stone steps, open one of the glass doors, shoot Mr. Wozniak and be back in his car and speeding away all within a matter of seconds.

People in power have also vowed to equip the guards with bulletproof vests. I bought one of those vests before I went to Iraq last year, and I was appalled at what I discovered. Even the best of the vests only work against handguns and knives.

We've also heard a lot of talk since the tragedy about installing metal detectors at the entrances. A metal detector would not have stopped Derek Potts unless it had been set up outside the Capitol, well in front of the north entrance.

Still, when something like this happens the natural reaction is to employ as much technology as possible in order to help people "feel" safe, so all of the above precautions will probably be implemented soon.

Closing the entrance way on the north side of the Capitol would be another important step. The circle drive is just too close to the building. If Potts couldn't use that driveway, he would have been forced him to carry his big gun a much longer distance, and someone, maybe Wozniak, might have had more time to spot him and react before he could have done anyone harm.

Think about this: Potts parked closer to the Capitol than Timothy McVeigh's explosive-packed rental truck got to the federal building in Oklahoma City.

The authorities seemed to realize the

driveway's potential problems after 9/11 and closed it off to people who didn't have permission to use it. A pizza delivery man was arrested not long after 9/11 when he parked on the driveway. Some of us thought the pizza man's treatment was ridiculous, even outrageous, but the authorities may have been right after all.

The restrictions were eventually lifted partly for the same reason that the hand-held metal detectors were abandoned. The horror and terror of 9/11 dissipated and people were tired of the inconvenience.

But it was also reopened because so many important people are dropped off and picked up on the circle drive. Plus, it's used as a parking lot for statewide officials like the governor, as well as several state senators.

Mr. Wozniak was killed while doing his duty. He ought to be honored to the fullest extent possible. I just hope we can have a reasoned debate about the lessons we should learn.

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