Tierney Sneed contributed reporting.
To enter the U.S. Capitol, one must walk through a metal detector, flash an ID badge, put any bags or purses through a scanner and pass several armed police officers. Outside those marble halls, however, hundreds of members of Congress and their staff have no security whatsoever—unless they hold one of a handful of leadership positions.
“When we’re off Capitol Hill, we don’t have anyone watching our backs,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) observed Wednesday. “It’s not hard for one person who is unhinged to do something pretty dangerous.”
The only reason Capitol Police officers were on duty at congressional Republicans’ baseball practice Wednesday morning at a public field in Alexandria, Virginia when a gunman opened fire was the presence of GOP Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who was shot and remains in critical condition in a Washington, D.C. hospital.
“If Steve Scalise’s detail had not been there, God, it could have been truly horrible, even worse,” a subdued and somber Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) told TPM.
As Congress reeled after the shooting, several members voiced a desire for additional security measures. One Republican lawmaker vowed to start carrying his firearm “in my pocket from this day forward” (carrying a gun into the Capitol is prohibited). But many other members from both parties warned against tightening security in response to the morning’s tragedy, stressing the importance of allowing free and open interactions with the public—even angry constituents.
“I wouldn’t want to see an overreaction that insulates members of Congress from what we’ve been experiencing back home—the rather unvarnished and rough forms of communication that are ultimately helpful and allow us to feel what people are feeling,” Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) told reporters, referencing the raucous town halls he and other lawmakers held in the lead-up to the passage of the House GOP’s Obamacare repeal bill. “If you take that away, we will lose something as a deliberative body. And if you have people with an earpiece standing right behind you at all times, that will happen.”
Sanford said he would leave decisions about security changes to the wisdom of the Capitol Police, but expressed skepticism that anything could guarantee safety for lawmakers.
“If there’s a nut out there, they’re always going to be able to find a way to get to you,” he said.
Others, including Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), said there are concrete steps lawmakers could take to protect themselves, especially in light of an increase in threats since last year.
“In early May—an this is an on-going legal process—an individual was arrested by the FBI in Tucson for three separate messages with very specific threats on my life,” McSally told reporters Wednesday. She said after that happened, she asked the Capitol Police to conduct a safety assessment of her offices, which is a service available to all lawmakers.
Rep. Rubén Gallego (D-AZ), who says he too has received death threats, noted that “a lot of members were asking for changes” following the shooting.
“Like the ability to actually use campaign dollars to pay for security at their homes, increasing our budgets so we can actually be in secure locations, so we can rent some places that have good security” for campaign events and town halls, he said. “Everyone is getting a bunch of death threats right now, so everyone was just commenting on how that’s an issue.”
In the wake of the violence and stepped up security on Capitol Hill, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told reporters he would personally look into the Capitol Police’s budget.
“It’s a good time to revisit: are we adequately supporting the Capitol Police in terms of the equipment they have and in terms of their communications ability and those subjects?” he said.
The debate comes just one day after the Senate Rules Committee and the Radio-TV gallery attempted to implement rules restricting reporters from filming impromptu interviews in the hallways of the Capitol and office buildings—a change floated in the name of lawmaker safety that was quickly scuttled after a widespread outcry.
Yet Capitol Police stressed at an all-members briefing Wednesday morning that nothing can take the place of plain, old-fashioned vigilance, offering the “old adage: if you see something, say something,” according to McSally.
“Sharing any early indication that something just doesn’t look right can really allow security officials to get ahead of a threatening situation,” she said.
Other lawmakers, including Rep. Al Green (D-TX), expressed concern for the staff back in their home district offices, who have no security at all. Green’s office has received a wave of death threats following his announcement that he would draft articles of impeachment for President Donald Trump.
“They don’t have the protection that we have here,” he said. “You cant get in without being searched, and at most of them, there is no police protection available.”
Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) expressed similar worries, saying that unlike lawmakers, whose “shtick is to draw attention to ourselves,” congressional aides quietly put themselves at risk.
“I have more concern about the safety of my staff, quite frankly, than myself personally,” he said. “I’ve been questioning our folks up in New York about whether they feel secure or not. Our office is a fairly open office. You can just walk in.”
But like Sanford, Crowley seemed resigned to some level of uncertainty in a chaotic world.
“Can you really prepare for everything? The answer is no,” he said.