Lawmakers are debating a range of heightened security measures following Wednesday’s shooting that critically injured House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, with a growing number of Republicans even seeking to carry their own guns into the Capitol for personal safety.
Rattled by the mass shooting by a gunman with an apparent political agenda, lawmakers are struggling with how to balance ensuring security for members of Congress while keeping themselves accessible to voters.
The gamut of options includes new rules ramping up the law enforcement presence at big group events with lawmakers, equipping Capitol Police with more advanced weapons, and allowing individual members to spend taxpayer or campaign dollars on personal security measures.
And several GOP lawmakers want the green light to bring their personal firearms onto Capitol grounds, a move that immediately alarmed Democrats who favor tougher gun restrictions.
“If that security detail had not been at that ball field, I shudder to think that the results would have been more than four or five casualties,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said in an interview. “And I believe if reciprocity had been extended to those members, they would have at least had a firearm in their vehicle.”
Massie introduced legislation Thursday that would allow anyone with a concealed carry permit in their home state to use it in the District of Columbia, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. Open carry of firearms is generally not allowed in the District, unlike neighboring Virginia where the shooting occurred early Wednesday, and D.C.’s concealed-carry ordinance has been tied up in the courts.
Other GOP lawmakers are pushing for ways to carry their firearms into the Capitol, such as Rep. Chris Collins of New York and Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, who argued Thursday that had the shooting occurred in his home state, the suspect “wouldn’t have gotten too far.”
“I can’t think of a worse idea,” responded Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of Congress’s most vocal advocates for tougher gun laws. “The data is really clear: Communities that have more guns have higher levels of gun violence.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) — who discussed new potential security measures with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) as the two men worked out in the Senate gym early Thursday — also said lawmakers should consider arming Capitol Police officers with more robust weapons.
Law enforcement officials said Thursday that they recovered weapons from the shooting suspect, James Hodgkinson, that included a 9 mm handgun and a 7.62 caliber rifle. There has been no evidence so far that the purchases were illegal, authorities said.
“When you have a shooter with a rifle and you have Capitol Police with just handguns, they’re at a decided disadvantage,” Cornyn said. “We should think also about making sure that Capitol Police are fully equipped with everything they need.”
But loosening some gun restrictions is far from the only idea being tossed around by lawmakers, who were still uneasy following the attack on Wednesday during the GOP practice in advance of Thursday night’s annual congressional baseball game.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had already been in touch before Wednesday’s shooting about security measures for lawmakers, who have been concerned about potential risks in an era of rowdy town halls and heated political rhetoric on both sides.
The speaker also met privately last week with Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) to discuss getting approval from the Federal Election Commission to use campaign funds for personal security, said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong.
In the past, the FEC has allowed lawmakers to use campaign cash for security purposes, and Strong said the House Sergeant-at-Arms is discussing the matter with the FEC to do so again after a security assessment. And while lawmakers’ official funds can’t be spent for personal security, the House Appropriations Committee is considering language that would permit members to do so, according to an aide.
In the Senate, key lawmakers — including Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the chairman of the panel that oversees funding for the legislative branch — have already exchanged ideas with the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and Capitol Police about ways to improve security and potentially increasing funding.
The Senate Rules Committee is also having similar discussions, said its chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). And the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms will brief senators on security next Tuesday, following a request from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Schumer, a McConnell spokesman said.
“We’re certainly soliciting recommendations from them on how we can either increase the level of security or change protocols so that when larger numbers of members are gathered, there’s a higher security presence,” said Murphy, who is the top Democrat on Lankford’s panel. “We want to figure out whether that’s a matter of protocol or a matter of resources.”
Security measures were already bolstered on Thursday. For instance, about a half-dozen Capitol Police officers were stationed with female lawmakers gathered at an area elementary school as they practiced for their own softball game next week, said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.).
But lawmakers caution about going too far to boost security, such as outfitting each member of Congress with a security detail. Murphy said his back-of-the-envelope calculation for accompanying an officer for all 535 lawmakers would more than double Capitol Police’s budget, from roughly $350 million now to about $1 billion.
“I’m not interested in a security detail. I don’t want to live my life like that,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said. “But in terms of when a group of congressmen are together or a group of senators are together, or improving security here at the Capitol, I’m going to sit down and listen on that.”
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.