Is the Baseball Shooting a Game Changer?

by John Lawrence

Today’s dreadful attack on Members of the House, Capitol Hill police, staffers and others is a disheartening reminder of the perils that accompany public service – risks that are incalculably increased by the easy availability of assault weapons like those used by the man who shot Rep. Steve Scalise and several others on an Alexandria baseball field.

For anyone who has served in Congress or worked with Members for any period of time, the dangers are all too familiar. During the years I worked for Congressman George Miller, his personal safety was in danger on several occasions, including threats of a Chilean assassin sent to the United States to target Miller for his condemnation of Pinochet’s role in murdering the former Ambassador to Washington and a young American colleague at Sheridan Circle. On another occasion, Miller was physically attacked by a constituent during a Town Hall meeting. The security that surrounded Speaker and Leader Pelosi was justifiably of a higher, and constant, level, warranted not only by her prominent position but also by the vitriolic abuse directed towards her daily.

These kinds of incidents remind us that, except for very few in the leadership, House and Senate members have no police protection except when they are on Capitol Hill. The expense of providing such coverage for hundreds of legislators would simply be prohibitive. Instead, members make arrangements with local law enforcement officials to safeguard them and their staff during public events like Town Halls; some have moved their district offices into secure facilities like courthouses or federal buildings that provide security screenings. Some level of risk seems unavoidable; Members must advertise their local schedules well in advance of public events which often lack the level of security screening that would be afforded an event on Capitol Hill.

One sensed a serious dissipation of the traditional collegiality with the ramping up of divisive rhetoric during the 1990s, as Washington and its denizens were routinely pilloried as corrupt, evil and worse. Long before September 11, 2001, when the sophistication of security procedures and safeguards on Capitol Hill changed radically, I recall hearing of the alarming number of weapons removed from those seeking to enter the Capitol and the House and Senate office buildings. Following the 9/11 attacks, police training and protective measures for the Hill were dramatically increased to minimize the danger to legislators, staff, visitors and others should Congress come under a similar attack.

Still, the atmosphere continued to deteriorate. No one who worked on the Hill during the debate over the Affordable Care Act in 2009-2010 will forget the hysterical mobs that besieged the House, at one point spitting on Members as they marched to vote on the legislation. Members reported constituents who were attending rallies and Town Halls armed with handguns in states where open and concealed carry laws have proliferated.

And then, there was that truly awful Saturday, January 8, 2011, when I took a call from the Capitol Sergeant at Arms informing me that Rep. Gabby Giffords, a good personal friend, had been shot; I had the terrible duty of calling my boss, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, to relay that news and the radio update – fortunately false – that Gabby had not survived. On Monday morning, I emailed Speaker John Boehner’s chief of staff, Barry Jackson, to suggest we invite all staff members to join us on the East steps of the Capitol to demonstrate our support for Gabby and our hopes for her survival and recovery. In just two hours, dozens of staff from both parties, as well as Members, joined us on the steps for an impromptu service during which all signs of partisan disagreement were instinctively suspended.

Now again, the violence has reached Capitol Hill, as it so tragically did nineteen years ago when a deranged gunman killed Capitol Hill officers John Gibson and Jacob Chestnut. Miraculously, this time, none of the intended victims died, largely because Majority Whip Scalise, as a member of the leadership, had a small security contingent with him that was able to fire back and prevent many more from injury.

Today’s horrifying events will prompt discussions of gun restrictions, the hazards of holding open constituent meetings, political rage and other predictable and reasonable topics. Will any change come from the tragedy and ensuing discussion? Not likely, at least not from Congress which remains in the thrall of the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners of America.  Nor from the media that thrives on the bloodletting – figurative and otherwise — that has become endemic in the Nation’s political discourse and coverage.

The pressure will have to come from voters who send unmistakable messages to legislators, media leaders and their fellow Americans that the price for the unrestrained availability of guns and hyper-partisan political rhetoric is unacceptable. How many times do we need to be reminded?