A violent shootout on a Virginia baseball field that wounded House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and several others exposed simmering concerns among lawmakers that increasingly toxic political rhetoric is putting them at greater risk in Washington and back home.
In the hours after the shooting, Republicans and Democrats alike struggled to reassess their protection and engagement with the public, outside the protective bubble of the Capitol. Some said they should be allowed to carry firearms at all times — even in Washington, a city with strict gun controls. Others pressed top leaders to let them use taxpayer funds to secure their private homes.
The shooting of Scalise (R-La.), a congressional staffer, a lobbyist and two U.S. Capitol Police officers recalled for many the day roughly 6 ½ years ago when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot while greeting constituents at an Arizona shopping center. Her injuries forced her to retire and led to stricter security at public events hosted by lawmakers in their home districts.
Capitol Hill security was dramatically tightened after a gunman stormed the U.S. Capitol in 1998 and shot two Capitol Police officers. The incident led to the approval of the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, which also serves as the main entrance for visitors.
In the wake of Wednesday’s shooting, lawmakers are pushing to be allowed to use taxpayer funds to boost security at their personal homes and during events in their districts.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) discussed the issue during a meeting last week, according to aides familiar with the talks, and there is now a sense of urgency to make a decision soon.
The proposal came up during an all-members’ briefing just hours after Wednesday’s shooting.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) acknowledged the issue had been raised but said it has not been settled. “That’s an issue we have been looking at,” he told reporters.
Several members said Wednesday that, at the very least, security should be upgraded for any off-Hill gathering involving more than a few lawmakers.
“There are discussions about perhaps — at least when a large crowd of lawmakers would be gathered, at a practice, at a congressional picnic, those sorts of things — that even if leadership was not there, that there might be some police present,” Pelosi said Thursday.
Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), a member of the GOP baseball team, said Congress should also explore allowing lawmakers to carry weapons to defend themselves.
“If this had happened in Georgia, he wouldn’t have gotten too far,” Loudermilk told reporters once back at the Capitol. “I had a staff member who was in his car maybe 20 yards behind the shooter, who was pinned in his car, who back in Georgia carries a 9-millimeter in his car. . . . He had a clear shot at him. But here, we’re not allowed to carry any weapons here.”
While firearms are strictly regulated on the Capitol grounds and in the rest of the District of Columbia, gun laws in Virginia — where the shooting took place — are significantly less strict. Firearms can be openly carried without a permit, and the state issues permits to carry concealed weapons. Alexandria allows the ownership and carrying of weapons, but discharging a firearm in the city is illegal.
“Most of us are here in D.C., so how do you have the gun here and just transport it to Virginia?” Loudermilk said when Virginia’s laws were pointed out. “I think we need to look at some kind of reciprocity for members here.”
Loudermilk said perhaps a larger group of lawmakers also should receive security protection, rather than just the top leaders, who have a round-the-clock Capitol Police detail.
“We’re not any more special than anybody else, but we are targets,” he said.
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) also said he worries about the protection members of Congress get when they are away from Capitol Hill.
“These town halls, we go out in front of a thousand people screaming and all it takes is one person off the reservation and you’re in trouble,” he said.
At the briefing on Wednesday, several members described threats made against them in recent years, according to people in the room. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) recounted an attempted firebombing of his Kansas City office in 2014. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) tearfully described protesters staging “die ins” in her driveway and protests outside her church. Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.) talked to his colleagues about the need for unity after others had mentioned death threats against him sparked by his decision to introduce articles of impeachment against President Trump.
Many members insisted they cannot let those kinds of threats deter them from doing their jobs.
“We can’t let the bad guys win. I’m going to go out and be with my constituents, whether they’re here, in Washington, D.C., visiting me, or whether they’re in the district,” said Rep. Charles J. “Chuck” Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), a member of the GOP ball team who spent hours recounting the incident to reporters still wearing his practice outfit and clutching his ball cap.
Members of the Capitol Police, uniformed and plain-clothed divisions, are a constant presence on Capitol Hill.
Uniformed officers are usually stationed outside the visitors entrances to congressional office buildings. Inside, at least two officers stand watch at each security checkpoint, reviewing bags, asking to see identification badges and offering directions to lost tourists.
Walking through the office buildings en route to the Capitol, visitors pass several more uniformed officers standing watch as they near the underground subways that carry lawmakers into the Capitol basement. On the second floor of the Capitol outside the House and Senate chambers, officers in business suits and police uniforms stand watch.
Such tight security is not afforded to lawmakers once they leave Washington unless they are members of congressional leadership. While some members might request police protection at public events, they often travel alone with aides or family members.
Matthew R. Verderosa, chief of the Capitol Police, told the House Appropriations Committee last month that at the request of House and Senate lawmakers, his agency had interacted 184 times so far this year with local police agencies about providing security at public events. Capitol Police also made unsolicited contact with House and Senate district offices 178 times to check on security for public events they learned about through social media or other public announcements, Verderosa said.
“We’re doing it at a much greater rate,” Verderosa said when compared to previous years.
During the hearing, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), reminded her GOP colleagues that threats against lawmakers are common.
“For some of the newer members they might think this is a brand new experience that Capitol Police and our local police are dealing with, but it’s not,” she said. “It’s a lot of the same.”
In the House, Ryan, Pelosi, McCarthy, Scalise and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) are the only members with round-the-clock protection. Whenever Ryan flies home to Wisconsin from Reagan National Airport, members of his detail fly with him, and several more officers stand watch at his gate while he waits for the flight.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), and their deputies, John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), all have constant police protection from business-suit-wearing officers. They are ferried to and from the Capitol each day in a pair of black SUVs and have protection with them wherever they travel.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the longest-serving member of the Republican conference, is the Senate pro tempore, a constitutional officer in the presidential line of succession. He also travels with a large protective detail in the hallways and to and from his office in the Russell Senate Office Building.
Hatch boarded an elevator after a Wednesday afternoon vote with three members of his security detail and an aide. Asked whether more of his colleagues should receive security protection like him, he quipped, “I think all of you deserve protection, too,” before adding later: “I think we have to protect everybody.”
Karoun Demirjian and Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.