Gabrielle Giffords shooting: Are members of Congress safe back home?
Congress is a near-fortress, but the Gabrielle Giffords shooting raises questions about security for members of Congress in their home districts.
The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona and three members of her staff during a public event in Tucson, Ariz., Jan. 8 is forcing House members, reluctantly, to consider stronger security measures in their home districts.Skip to next paragraph
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Bombings, gun assaults, 9/11, and an anthrax attack have already turned the US Capitol into a near-fortress, flanked by screening points, detectors, and an armed force of 1,800. But back at home, members and their staff work outside that security bubble, despite the occasional brick through a district office window or, more frequently, threatening phone calls.
That could change. The US Capitol Police and Federal Bureau of Investigation are urging members not only to report all credible threats but also to assign a staff member back in the district to be a link with local law enforcement. One result could be greater police presence at lawmakers’ public events.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say that they don’t want to face voters behind a bulletproof window or flanked by a conspicuous show of security. It discourages voter contact, members say. Too many barriers between lawmakers and the people they represent could undermine the right of the people “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.”
That’s the passage from the First Amendment of the US Constitution that Congresswoman Giffords read on the floor of the House just two days before she was shot at point blank range and gravely injured at the “Congress on Your Corner” event. Republican leaders noted that coincidence in a resolution they took to the floor on Jan. 12 honoring her service, as well as the six people killed and 12 others wounded in the attacks.
An unusual attack
House members are consulting with their own staffs and law enforcement about what practical steps to take next to meet security threats. Those threats vary considerably from district to district.
But the shooting of Giffords has shaken them deeply. The attack was, in many respects, unprecedented in congressional history. Only one member of the US House – Rep. Leo Ryan – has been shot and killed while in office, and he was ambushed Nov. 18, 1978, on a mission to investigate human rights violations in an American cult that had relocated to Guyana, in what became known as the Jonestown Massacre. The only sitting member of the Senate to be shot and killed was Huey Long, who was running for president at the time (1935).
By contrast, Giffords was not a national figure, nor was the event at which she was shot controversial. She was essentially a typical congresswoman attending a typical district get-together – and therein lies the greatest worry for many members of Congress. Some are already talking about removing offices from dangerous parts of their districts, and others who hold many meet-and-greet events like Giffords’s “Congress on Your Corner” are rethinking how and where they can meet with their constituents openly and safely.
“We’re going to have to work across the country to determine the issue of risk,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank that consults with big city police forces and with Capitol Hill.