Defender of the Second Amendment, if Not of His Aide
The cry -- from a member of the Capitol Hill press corps -- rang out as Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) rounded a corner at high noon and strode toward reporters waiting outside the Senate chamber. Webb had called the news conference to talk about his aide, who was caught walking into a Senate office building Monday with a loaded pistol and extra ammo that, the aide said, belonged to the senator. Webb -- Vietnam veteran, former Navy secretary and all-around tough guy -- couldn't suppress a smile as he approached the microphones.
"I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment," he announced, wearing the sort of baggy suit that made it hard to tell for sure if he was packing heat. "I have had a permit to carry a weapon in Virginia for a long time, and I believe that it's important for me personally and for a lot of people in the situation that I am in -- to be able to defend myself and my family."
If Webb seemed to be enjoying the moment a bit too much, that's probably because a Virginia politician has never lost an election for loving guns too much. But Phillip Thompson, who carried the weapon, derived rather less pleasure from the incident.
Thompson -- a.k.a. "Lockup No. 1" -- spent 28 hours in the slammer after walking into the Russell building Monday morning with a gun and two loaded magazines in his briefcase. Two hours after Webb's performance in front of the cameras, Thompson -- sandwiched between drug cases and domestic disputes -- made his appearance in the foul-smelling arraignment room at D.C. Superior Court. He had a 5 o'clock shadow and a new pair of leg irons to accessorize his rumpled business suit. Ordered to stand in a box marked off with frayed duct tape, he must have been too stunned to answer when the judge asked if he understood the charges.
"You have to answer, sir," the judge told the silent defendant. "Do you understand?"
"Yes," he said quietly.
Could it have been any worse? Well, consider that Monday was Thompson's 45th birthday.
A court employee handed out copies of the complaint as reporters rushed from the arraignment room to chase Thompson. His fancy Virginia lawyer, unfamiliar with the bowels of the courthouse, led the defendant out the wrong exit -- forcing him to walk several blocks to a parking garage, surrounded all the way by TV cameras and reporters.
"Who gave you the gun?"
"Was it a big mistake?"
"What are you going to do now?"
The pack passed a Cosi coffee shop. "Mr. Thompson, are you going to eat?"
The lawyer, Richard Gardiner, answered for his client. "No comment. . . . He's not gonna have any comment. . . . He's not making any comment, on the advice of his attorney." Thompson, Gardiner and an unidentified third man gave the cameras yet another shot when they emerged from the garage in a BMW with Virginia plates.
The complaint laid out Thompson's version of events: "The defendant stated that he was in possession of a pistol and two magazines belonging to Senator Jim Webb. The defendant further stated that he inadvertently left the gun that he was safekeeping from the previous days." Webb may be pleased to know that, according to the complaint, "the weapon was test fired and is operable."
And how does Webb feel about the whole thing? Hard to say. Gardiner wouldn't say who had retained him to represent Thompson. Webb himself, after calling the news conference to discuss the matter, then said he couldn't talk about it.
"I didn't know this many people who were really that interested in Iran," he said cheerfully as he reached the microphones.
Webb, an expert marksman, was happy to discuss why he carries a concealed weapon. "Since 9/11, for people who are in government, I think in general there has been an agreement that it's more -- a more dangerous time," he said. "If you look at people in the executive branch . . . there is not that kind of protection available to people in the legislative branch. We are required to defend ourselves, and I choose to do so."
Webb even hinted that he ignores the District law requiring handguns to be registered. Asked if he considered himself above D.C. law, he said: "I'm not going to comment in any level in terms of how I provide for my own security," he said.
The senator was less forthcoming in his defense of Thompson. "He is going to be arraigned today," Webb said. "I do not in any way want to prejudice his case and the situation that he's involved in."
Prejudice the case? But wasn't it Webb's gun that his aide was carrying for him?
Webb wouldn't even acknowledge it was his gun. "I have never carried a gun in the Capitol complex, and I did not give the weapon to Phillip Thompson," he stipulated.
Webb had kind words for his aide -- "a longtime friend" and "a fine individual" -- but he seemed to be trying to cut Thompson loose as he spoke of the incident. "I find that what has happened with Phillip Thompson is enormously unfortunate," Webb reported. "I was in New Orleans from last Friday until yesterday evening. I was not in town. I learned about this when I was in New Orleans."
Upon reflection, Webb must have decided that he had been stinting in his defense of Thompson. An hour later, his office sent out an amended statement. "I can say with great confidence that this was an inadvertent mistake on his part," the statement said. It was a little late for Lockup No. 1.