They already were worried about their safety, pointing to heated town halls and a steady stream of venom directed at almost anyone involved in politics.
Then came gunfire on a baseball field as Republican members of Congress dove for safety, watching in horror as one of their own was hit. The shooting Wednesday clearly rattled lawmakers, raising questions about how to keep them safe while preserving the kind of openness often taken for granted in U.S. democracy.
At least one member suggested lawmakers should be able to carry guns in Washington, D.C. And even as some members cautioned against moving too quickly to throw up barriers, several said security is likely to be ramped up at town halls and others called for security personnel to be posted at every congressional event that includes more than one member of Congress.
“It’s a legitimate public safety issue for every member of Congress, who are husbands and wives and sons and daughters,” said Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., who was supposed to be at the practice but missed his ride.
It’s a legitimate public safety issue for every member of Congress, who are husbands and wives and sons and daughters.
Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., who was supposed to be at the practice but missed his ride
He said lawmakers have been growing increasingly uneasy about their personal security, with many declining to hold public town halls because of fears that antagonism will turn to violence.
“People think when we talk about it that it’s nonsense or an excuse not to meet with constituents,” Costello said. “It’s not a function of not wanting to meet with people or go places. You just want to be sure you’re doing it smartly and you’re not putting yourself in a position where you’re giving some crazy person all the information they need to carry out something like what happened this morning.”
Other lawmakers said it was too soon to evaluate whether there’s a need for more security.
“I certainly hope not,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., a member of Senate leadership. “I think most members of Congress get back to and from their states with--other than travel complications, something we all deal with--a high level of confidence that they’re going to be safe. It seemed like a senseless act of violence and hopefully an outlier and something we won’t see more of.”
Added Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.: “We live in a free and open society. What happened today is beyond troubling and I think that’s just something we have to evaluate.”
We live in a free and open society. What happened today is beyond troubling and I think that’s just something we have to evaluate.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, suggested the debate over more security for lawmakers is premature.
“I thought about that instantly and think we should let this cool down for a few days and let the cooler heads prevail,” he said, when asked whether there was a need for more protection. He praised House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise’s security detail for firing at the gunman and preventing further chaos, but went on to add, “We should be judicious about this, wait a few days, get a better look at it.”
But an increasing number of lawmakers said they are worried about the level of political discourse.
Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., said security for members of Congress is “nothing near what it needs to be” pointing to the raucous town halls in which “we go out in front of a thousand people screaming.” Brat was one of the few Republicans who last month held a town hall, and it erupted into a frenzy of yelling and screaming.
“It only takes one person that’s off the reservation and you’re in trouble,” Brat said.
In the House only five members have a security detail: the Speaker, Majority Leader and Majority Whip and the Democratic Leader and Minority Whip.
He said he and other members have shared their worries about being out in public, even fretting about solitary bike rides.
“You’re taking a risk; now everyone is going to reassess the risk,” Brat said. As for public events, he said lawmakers need to be prepared and ramp up security.
“We need to make sure sheriffs and police are there,” he said. “We’ve got to do our homework ahead of time; you don’t just walk out into huge throngs.”
Although the Capitol building and congressional offices are fortified with police officers and visitors walk through metal detectors and have their belongings screened, in the House only five members of Congress have a security detail: the Speaker, Majority Leader and Majority Whip and the Democratic Leader and Minority Whip.
Most members of Congress credited Scalise’s security detail with preventing further carnage by taking out the gunman, who was thought to have carried a rifle.
It would be “cost prohibitive,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., to have a police officer assigned to all 535 members of Congress, but one potential change may be send a Capitol Police detail to events where several members are expected.
“It could mean that we may have to allocate more resources to member security,” Curbelo said. “We like to be thrifty around here, but when people’s lives are at stake, that’s where you draw the line.”
Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., who was at the practice, suggested that Congress should look at whether members could carry guns in Washington. He carries a gun at home, as does a staffer who carries a 9 mm in his car in Georgia, but is banned from doing so in Washington.
You can’t stop people from doing evil things. Throughout our history, evil things have happened.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
“If this had happened in Georgia, he wouldn’t have gotten too far,” Loudermilk told CNN and other reporters. “He had a clear shot at him, but here we’re not allowed to carry any weapons.”
But Loudermilk suggested a broader look at security details for large gatherings of members.
“We’re not any more special than anybody else, but we are targets,” he said. “This is exactly why there’s a lot of fear of even doing town halls at this point. Some of the things this guy is posting on Facebook – we get the same things and even worse.”
The 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., had already forced changes to lawmakers’ security protocols, including enlisting local law enforcement to patrol town halls, said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
“I’m more concerned about them (law enforcement) than I am about me, because they have a target on their back each and every day,” Meadows said. “We just have to understand that there are people out there that want to do harm to others.”
Still, he said he instructed his staff in Washington and back home to “refresh security protocols” in the wake of the Virginia shooting.
“Sadly it’s the time and place that we live,” he said.
Meadows said Congress will adapt, noting that airline passengers are now accustomed to enhanced security, post 9/11.
“You can’t stop people from doing evil things,” he said. “Throughout our history, evil things have happened.”
Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who was at the practice and helped with aid to Scalise, said members of Congress have long been “high-profile targets” but that it comes with the position.
“(Gabby) Giffords drove that home when she was shot and other people were killed in Arizona,” Brooks said. “We’ve had other kinds of threats that occur on a regular basis. I’ve had my name on the internet with a bounty. … We understand the risks.”
Still, the call for enhanced security drew bipartisan support, with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., saying police will need to be a presence at events like the baseball game when a number of members are gathering.
“I hate to think what would have happened if Scalise’s officers weren’t there,” she said. “Our country’s changed dramatically.”
She noted that because of its history there is always a sizeable police presence when lawmakers are meeting or touring lower New York City and the 9/11 site.
“Unfortunately there are too many of these incidents happening,” she said. “We are getting good at intelligence and prevention, but it’s not good enough.”
Congress has been a target in the past, with the Giffords shooting just the most recent. The Capitol has been slowly made more secure after a series of incidents: in 1954 a group of Puerto Rican separatists opened fire from the visitors’ gallery in the House, wounding five lawmakers.
In 1983, a bomb went off in the Senate, marking the most recent start of tightened security measures across the Capitol.
Those were stepped up in 1998 when a gunman killed two Capitol Police officers when attempting to gain entry to the Capitol.
Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., who wasn’t at Wednesday’s baseball practice, said he doesn’t know how Congress could determine security for individual members.
But Meehan, who pitches for the team, said the shooting shouldn’t affect the game, scheduled to take place Thursday night.
“I think all of us want to play,” he said. “We do not want to let this change, we can’t let haters win. And they won’t. We’ll play.”
Katie Glueck, Jessica Campisi, William Douglas, Katishi Maake and Anshu Siripurapu contributed to this report.