By Allison Klein and Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 28, 2007; B01
U.S. Sen. James Webb expressed support yesterday for a top aide caught with a handgun in a Senate office building but shed little light on his role in what he described as an "unfortunate" situation.
Webb (D-Va.) declined to confirm what the aide, Phillip Thompson, told authorities after he was taken into custody on Monday: that the gun belongs to the senator and that he was "safekeeping" it for him. Webb said that a mix-up was to blame for the episode but that he could not provide details because Thompson faces criminal charges.
"I think this is one of those very unfortunate situations where, completely inadvertently, he took the weapon into the Senate yesterday," Webb said. Beyond that, Webb provided little information, never saying whether the gun is his.
"I have never carried a gun in the Capitol complex, and I did not give the weapon to Phillip Thompson, and that's all that I think I'll say," Webb said during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol.
The statements were Webb's first public comment on the matter. They came as Thompson, a longtime friend of Webb's and fellow former Marine, was locked up just blocks away, awaiting an appearance later in the day in D.C. Superior Court.
U.S. Capitol Police arrested Thompson, 45, about 10:30 a.m. Monday, soon after the handgun and extra ammunition were found in a briefcase he was trying to take into the Russell Senate Office Building. He spent a night in jail because weapons charges were not filed until after a cutoff time for same-day court appearances.
Yesterday, Thompson was listed as Lockup No. 1 on a court list of people awaiting hearings. He was on a calendar with a couple of other people facing gun charges, and others accused of panhandling, assault, possession of crack cocaine and other offenses.
Thompson, the senator's executive assistant, is charged with carrying a pistol without a license and possessing an unregistered firearm and unregistered ammunition. He stood in court with his attorney, Richard E. Gardiner, wearing the white shirt, gray-checked suit and black shoes that he apparently had on when he was arrested.
Gardiner, a Fairfax lawyer, was apparently unfamiliar with Superior Court practices and entered a not guilty plea on Thompson's behalf. In D.C. felony cases, a plea is not entered until a defendant is indicted.
Magistrate Judge Richard H. Ringell agreed to release Thompson on personal recognizance, pending a preliminary hearing May 1. Tailed by a swarm of reporters and photographers as he left the courthouse, Thompson offered no comments.
According to charging papers, Thompson called the incident a mistake and said he had been "safekeeping" the gun and ammunition for Webb. Thompson said he had inadvertently left the items in a briefcase he was carrying for Webb, the papers stated.
During his news conference, the few details Webb offered contradicted an account provided Monday by a Senate official familiar with the case. That official said Webb had given the gun to Thompson during a trip to the airport earlier in the day.
Webb said he flew to New Orleans on Friday, not Monday. He said he learned of the trouble when he was still in New Orleans. He then offered a vague account of what happened.
"We had three cars on Friday that were being moved about because of my trip, and that is probably a reason that this inadvertent situation developed," Webb said.
The first-term senator was more clear-cut on a couple of points.
He reaffirmed his friendship with Thompson, who quit his job as an editor with the Army Times Publishing Co. to work on Webb's campaign last year.
And he defended his right to carry a gun. Webb has a license in Virginia to carry a concealed weapon. D.C. law bars people who are not in law enforcement from carrying handguns and concealed weapons.
"I'm a strong supporter of the Second Amendment," Webb said. "It's important for me personally and a lot of people in the situation that I'm in to be able to defend myself and my family."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, "there has been agreement that it's a more dangerous time," Webb said. "I'm not going to comment with great specificity on how I defend myself, but I do feel I have that right."
Compared with the president and others in the executive branch, lawmakers have little protection, Webb said, making no mention of the security provided by Capitol Police. "We are required to defend ourselves, and I choose to do so."
Asked whether he feels he is above D.C.'s gun laws, which are among the strictest in the country, Webb replied, "I'm not going to comment on any level in terms of how I provide for my own security."
He said he thinks Virginia's gun laws are fair, and "wherever you see laws that allow people to carry, generally the violence goes down."
Webb regularly takes target practice at the National Rifle Association shooting range. He was an expert marksman as a Marine and once taught marksmanship using a .45-caliber handgun.
Although Thompson faces a potential prison sentence, the political consequences for Webb might not be so severe, analysts said yesterday. The incident could solidify his standing with voters in Virginia, particularly in rural areas, they said.
"Having a gun is not a liability in this state for a politician," said Mark J. Rozell, a politics professor at George Mason University. "The fact that he carries a concealed weapon confirms his credentials with gun owners."
"I think what it reinforces is that Webb is a different kind of Democrat who is clearly committed to the Second Amendment and has a gun close by when he is in Virginia," said Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. He said it was interesting that Webb pointed out yesterday that members of Congress are "left unprotected" and "are compelled" to protect themselves out in public.
Staff writer Timothy Dwyer and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.