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.

By , staff writer

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.

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.

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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 HouseRep. 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.

On Capitol Hill, the new concerns could force House Republicans either to defend or repeal one of the first moves they made after taking power: a measure to cut spending for member and leadership offices by 5 percent for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.

The move was designed to shrink the size and scope of government, and it had wide bipartisan support, passing 408 to 13. But the mood has shifted since the shooting in Tucson, and some Democrats say those funds are now needed to boost security in district offices.

House Republican leaders oppose a repeal. “All members are concerned about security and are listening to the advice of the FBI, Sergeant at arms, Capitol Police,” says Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner. “We are focused on using the resources we have now.”

But nine-term Rep. Bobby Rush (D) of Illinois was the first to float the idea of moving one of his two district offices, located in a neighborhood recently dubbed “the most violent police beat in Chicago.” The move, proposed after the Jan. 8 attacks, was prompted by concerns over the safety of his district staff, as well as that of constituents visiting the office, he said.

But Mr. Rush, like other lawmakers, is reluctant to appear to signal that he is backing away from voters in a troubled part of the district. The decision is not yet final, he clarified in a Jan. 12 statement: “Any reports to the contrary are inaccurate.”

Citing the prospect of moving district offices to safer ground, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois says he opted to stay in a poor neighborhood, but will need funding to support staff and security upgrades. “We are bunkered down and hunkered down in a post-9/11 Congress. We have created a fortress up here. But we have not treated our district staffs the same way we treat staff up here,” he said, speaking after a security meeting at the Capitol. “As a result, they are vulnerable, and something needs to be done about it.”

‘It could have been us’

For Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D) of Colorado, the issue after the Jan. 8 shootings is whether to scale back his signature “Government in the Grocery” events. He has held as many as 80 events in every part of his district at the edge of Denver since his election in 2006. Congressman Perlmutter prefers meeting with constituents where they are, rather than at a venue convenient to politicians. He calls these encounters with constituents “the fabric of our democracy.”

But the attack in Tucson now requires renegotiating terms with grocery stores, who may be reluctant to have patrons face any kind of new security. There is also concern for staff, who work with Perlmutter to help meet constituent needs on site.

“This has hit very close to home for all of us,” says Leslie Oliver, a spokesman for Perlmutter, based in the district office. “We hold those very same meetings [as Giffords and her staff]. It could have been us.”

The district office has “Government in the Grocery” events on the calendar for Jan. 29 and Feb. 12, but it’s not clear “how our program is going to change,” she adds.

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