Protecting lawmakers: Arm them? Install shields?
WASHINGTON — Several lawmakers defiantly vowed Tuesday to arm themselves after the shooting rampage in Arizona despite the Senate’s top law enforcement officer’s admonition that more guns would not be the answer.
“It’s not that I’m going to be like Wyatt Earp,” declared Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., who said he was re-applying for a state permit to carry a concealed weapon even if he didn’t necessarily plan to carry the pistol to public events.
In a Capitol already ringed by concrete stanchions and armed guards, members of Congress struggled to come up with new ways to ensure their safety in a democracy suddenly shaken by an assassin’s bullets. Republican and Democratic leaders signaled that closer coordination with local law enforcement was a practical first step after the Arizona shootings that left six dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded.
Beyond that, talk centered on legislation that would make it a crime to carry a weapon within 1,000 feet of elected or high-ranking federal officials at publicly announced events and a proposal to install a Plexiglas enclosure to protect the House floor from gallery spectators — two ideas unlikely to get much traction in the new Congress. Democrats also called for rolling back a 5 percent, GOP-engineered cut in congressional spending and redirecting the money to security.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, seemed cool to the idea. “We will rely on the recommendations of the sergeant-at-arms and the Capitol police,” he said.
A security briefing for lawmakers was scheduled for Wednesday morning.
Questioned about lawmakers taking matters into their own hands by carrying concealed weapons, Terrance Gainer, the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms and former Washington, D.C., police chief, said it wouldn’t solve the problem.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Gainer told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “I don’t think introducing more guns into the situation is going to be helpful.”
Gainer said threats to members of the Senate had increased over the past year — to 49. But he said he considered the number small given all the interactions that lawmakers have with the public.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, still plans to carry his handgun at public events, his office said, despite Gainer’s remarks. “It’s a personal choice,” said Chaffetz spokeswoman Alisia Essig.
Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., also said he plans to carry a concealed handgun more often. He obtained a permit after an angry constituent threatened his life in 2009.
Several other lawmakers questioned whether sweeping changes to congressional security are logistically or politically possible.
“The body is just too large. I don’t think democracy ever anticipated that there would be problems like this,” said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn.
Threats against lawmakers are not uncommon, but actual violence is quite rare. Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif., was murdered in Guyana by cult members just before the massive suicide in Jonestown in 1978.
In 1954, several Puerto Rican nationalists fired about 30 pistol shots in the House of Representatives chamber, wounding five lawmakers, and in 1983 a bomb, planted by people protesting the U.S. military presence in Lebanon and Grenada, did minor damage in a hallway outside the Senate chamber.
Security in the Capitol became considerably tighter after a July 1998 incident in which a man fatally shot two Capitol Police officers.
Republican Rep. Peter King of New York plans to introduce a bill that would make it a crime to carry a weapon within 1,000 feet of elected or high-ranking federal officials at publicly announced events.
King, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said the measure would give local police another tool to check and possibly question people approaching members of Congress, the Cabinet, the CIA director and people attending their public events.
Winning congressional approval of such a bill won’t be easy, King said. “There’s a good number of members in Congress who instinctively oppose gun legislation,” he said.
In the wake of the attack on Giffords, longtime Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., is reviving his legislation to install a Plexiglas shield enclosing the visitors’ gallery in the House chamber, which he argues would protect lawmakers. The proceedings of the House could still be seen and would be clearly audible to the general public.
Just last week, during a reading of the Constitution in the House, a woman in the visitors gallery was removed by Capitol police after she interrupted lawmakers with shouts.
Burton has pushed for the measure in previous sessions of Congress, but it’s never gotten out of the House Administration Committee. He planned to propose a version of the bill next week, his press secretary, Josh Gillespie, said Tuesday.
“I think you’ll see a lot of legislation that pours forth, but you’ve got to sift through it all,” Rep. Larson said. “Anytime in the immediate aftermath of something, there’s usually not a silver bullet. The more you listen, the more you synthesize, perhaps you come up with some common sense ideas.”
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