Larry Dawson, the gunman reportedly apprehended at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on Monday signifies a danger that has always hung over Congress, perhaps to a greater extent than the public realizes. That the suspect did not inflict more harm similarly is an indicator of the countermeasures that are also greater – and rightly so – than the public realizes.
I started working for Congress in 1979, and spent 11 years in an office in the basement of the Capitol, Room HB-5. Of course, there was always known to be a security risk for the members of Congress, and staff, who worked at the Capitol. That had long been met by the special police force, the Capitol Police, who staffed facilities and screened visitors. I went through Capitol Police security every day, and, some days, more than once as I went back and forth to other Capitol buildings, or out to lunch and back.
Capitol Police who did the screening found, not infrequently, handguns in the pockets of visitors. Surprisingly little more usually happened than this – the guns were confiscated but often there were no criminal charges. Visitors come to the Capitol from all over the country, including many from states which allow carrying them virtually everywhere. Although DC law is restrictive, the Capitol Police did not punish visitors who were ignorant but innocent.
Since then, of course, security at the Capitol has tightened up, over and over. To someone who worked on the Hill in the early 1990s and before, the change is astonishing. It used to be relatively easy to get into the Capitol. Now, even someone who has passed through screening, is dressed professionally, and who says he has an appointment, still must wait while the Capitol Police check the appointment.
One of the incidents that led to the increase in security was the slaying of two Capitol Police officers in 1998 by a mentally disturbed gunman named Russell Eugene Weston, Jr. He killed an officer (Jacob Chestnut) and a detective (John Gibson). I believe he was after the majority leadership at the time and was intercepted by these officers before he could get to their offices.
Another triggering incident was, of course, the 9/11 hijackings, where the target for the plane downed in Pennsylvania was believed to be the Capitol.
Shortly after then, another triggering incident was the mailing of anthrax envelopes to Capitol Hill offices, a crime that has not yet been satisfactorily solved. Whole Congressional buildings where there had been anthrax were shut down. I knew staff in those buildings who were on antibiotics for months.
Finally – although this was more than two thousand miles away from the Capitol – there was the 2011 shooting in Tucson of U.S. Representatives Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others during a constituent meeting in Casas Adobes, Arizona. One of her staffers was among the six who died. She was gravely injured. The gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, who was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, was sentenced in 2012 to life in prison. He had, it turned out, planned to assassinate her. The shooting revived concerns about the availability of guns.
It is no mystery who most opposes each step tightening security at the Capitol: the Representatives and Senators themselves, of both parties, and from all across the country. I heard this directly from them, many times. They want their constituents – and everyone else’s – to feel at home in the Capitol as “the People’s House.” They want visitors from all over the country – and all over the world, too – to experience the Capitol as a shining symbol of democracy in action. Each one of the 535 Congressional offices is a virtual welcoming hospitality center for constituents.
This latest incident will no doubt lead to a review of security, with recommendations for how to tighten it. But, it is a sure bet that any effort to further restrict the public coming to the Capitol Grounds will meet with bipartisan and bicameral resistance. The Capitol will remain open – albeit as securely as possible.
This article was written by Charles Tiefer from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.