AUSTIN -- At the state Capitol, a legal concealed gun is the equivalent of a highway TollTag.To enter the sand-colored building, most people -- schoolchildren on field trips, out-of-state tourists -- must wait in line to pass through a security area outfitted with metal detectors and scanners. But those with state licenses to carry concealed firearms can enter in a matter of seconds. They simply hand their permit to a state trooper, who verifies its authenticity. No metal detector needed.Just as Texas has long embraced its guns, so has the Capitol. Legislators have walked the terrazzo hallways, attended committee hearings, met with constituents in their offices and voted on the floors of their respective chambers while armed with licensed high-powered pistols tucked beneath their suits or slipped into their boots or purses.Despite the widespread acceptance of concealed weapons, many lawmakers do not speak so freely about their weaponry. Discretion is a key element of the Capitol's gun culture: One reason those with licenses were given a separate security lane was to avoid having them take out their guns before passing through the metal detectors.But of the 181 members of the state House and Senate, dozens have concealed-carry permits and routinely have their weapons with them in the building, current and former lawmakers said. Jerry Patterson, the state land commissioner and a former senator who wrote the concealed handgun law, put the number at around 35 legislators. Others said Patterson's estimate is too high, and others, including Alice Tripp, legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, said it is too low."I'd say half the House and half the Senate," she said. "There's a couple who, I used to say, their desks would qualify as a gun show."At recent hearings of the House Committee on County Affairs, Rep. Jonathan Stickland sat listening to testimony while wearing a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol."This is probably one of the most well-armed buildings in the state," said Stickland, a freshman Republican from Bedford. "When you grow up around guns and you feel comfortable with what they can do, and you know how to use them and you respect them, there's really nothing to fear."Anyone trying to understand why the gun debate has played out differently in Texas should visit the 124-year-old center of state government. The normalcy of firearms in the Capitol -- the ease with which those with concealed handguns enter the building, and legislators' habit of wearing their weapons in their offices or on the House or Senate floor -- reflects the normal nature of firearms throughout Texas.The recent rush of bills seeking to expand and promote gun rights in the state -- allowing concealed firearms on college campuses, making Texas Independence Day on March 2 a tax-free holiday for gun purchases -- were fine-tuned by armed staff members and filed by armed legislators as armed Texans strolled the halls.When metal detectors were temporarily installed outside the third-floor galleries of the House and Senate chambers a few years ago, one lobbyist recalled that some House members used their offices as "gun-checks" where constituents could store their weapons and pick them up later. When Gov. Rick Perry gave his State of the State speech in February 2011 in the House chamber, he stood a short distance from Rep. Chuck Hopson, who paid close attention with a .22-caliber five-shot revolver in his right boot and a .357 Magnum within arm's reach in a drawer of his desk.Many Texas lawmakers were some of the first to undergo criminal background checks and complete hours of training to receive a concealed handgun permit after the state law passed in 1995.They described carrying weapons in the Capitol as a personal security habit, doing what they did elsewhere in the state, whether shopping, dining, praying or driving. They also wear their weapons, they said, for the same reason they keep jacks in their vehicles and fresh batteries in their smoke detectors at home. They said there is a difference between being paranoid and being prepared."We don't expect these things to happen, but they do happen," said Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who has carried in the Capitol. "The reason you carry a gun on you is like the reason you carry insurance. You don't expect a tornado to blow down your house. It's protection."The metal detectors at the four public entrances are recent additions to Capitol security, installed in 2010 after a Houston man hiding a gun followed a female staff member into Patrick's office and after leaving fired his weapon into the air outside on the Capitol's south steps. No one was injured and the man was arrested.Even after the gunshots, guns remain not so much a political issue as a cultural one. Several members who carry in the building are Democrats. Hopson sat with his Magnum at his desk on the House floor for 12 years, and for most of that time he was a Democrat. He switched parties in 2009 and became a Republican, and gave up his seat representing parts of East Texas in January after failing to win re-election.One recent morning, minutes before the House would officially convene for the day and beneath the august framed portraits of Francis R. Lubbock and other Texas figures, Hopson stood on the House floor at his old desk. Asked if he was armed at that moment, he replied, "I have a North American Arms .22 Magnum." And was it loaded?"Of course," he said. "What good are they if they're not loaded?"Others in Austin have the curious distinction of being gun people without actually being gun people. Several lobbyists, Capitol reporters and others went through the trouble of getting a concealed-handgun license solely to speed their entry into the building. They carry no guns, only their licenses.Lobbyist Bill Miller uses his permit for that reason, as does Ken Herman, a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. "All I'm doing is taking advantage of a rule," Herman said. "I have nothing against people who enjoy hunting. I'm too squeamish to do it. I would do it if you could shoot a nice hamburger or something. I'm from Brooklyn originally. This is not of my culture."Tripp, with the state rifle association, most likely carries both a license and a gun in the Capitol, though it is difficult to be certain. "That's none of your business," she said when asked. "I won't tell you how old I am either."