Politics

Baseball Shooting Raises Lawmaker Protection Questions

Incident prompts discussion of security at practices and the Capitol

Alexandria Police line the street with police tape across the street from Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Va., where House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was shot during baseball practice. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Members of Congress know they could be targets of violence, but they didn’t see it coming at their early morning practice for the Congressional Baseball Game.

“It was absolutely a safe space. We get up at 5:30 in the morning, just to go play baseball,” said Rep. Mike Bishop. “It does rattle your sense of what’s safe and what isn’t.”

The Michigan Republican was standing at home plate when a gunman opened fire at the GOP team’s practice in Alexandria, Va., wounding five people, including GOP Whip Steve Scalise, R-La. Two Capitol Police officers assigned to protect Scalise returned fire, which lawmakers on the field said saved their lives.

“If those two hadn’t been there, this would have been a totally different story,” Bishop said. “I wouldn’t be here. There’s no way. This guy knew he had us trapped.”

But amid praise for the heroic actions of the two officers were new questions about how lawmakers are protected when they gather as a group.

“We probably should’ve realized that having this many members of Congress congregated in one place made us a target,” said GOP shortstop Gary Palmer, R-Ala., as he left the field Wednesday morning.

Capitol Police Chief Matthew R. Verderosa said in a statement that the department “will continue to provide a robust and visible presence across the Capitol Complex.”

While leaving the scene in Alexandria, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Frank J. Larkin, the chamber’s top law enforcement officer, said it was “too early” to comment on whether increased police presence was necessary at events like the baseball practices.

Security officials are likely evaluating what they could have done differently. 

Former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said the Capitol Police Board and the department itself are likely conducting reviews of the shooting, as is standard practice after major incidents. 

“People who are responsible for protecting other folks are going to say, ‘Was there one of those dots or several of those dots that we should have connected but did not?’” Gainer said.

Re-evaluating police presence

Gainer recalled discussing security at baseball practices at some point during his tenure at the Capitol. He could not remember exactly when those conversations occurred, or precisely why they decided not to have a heavy police presence at the practices.

“I don’t believe that we had much concern about the practices. I just don’t recall that,” Gainer said. “It seems improbable that we would have dedicated [resources to] that because (A) I don’t think they had a lot of practices, (B) they were pretty off hours and they weren’t broadcast as events.”

But lawmakers expect security at these types of events to be re-evaluated.

“We need to make sure that not just the leadership but that any other groups of members who meet in large numbers, which are particularly vulnerable, that we pay attention to how best to provide security there,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn. The Texas Republican also has a security detail as a member of leadership.

“We’d be foolish not to try to learn some lessons from this,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy. The Connecticut Democrat is a member of his party’s baseball team, and is also the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over Capitol Police funding.

Verderosa and Larkin were both scheduled to sit before the subcommittee Wednesday, but the hearing was cancelled due to the shooting. The subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., expected the shooting would be discussed at the next hearing.

The Capitol Police department has experienced budget increases in recent years, even as funding for the rest of the legislative branch has been cut. The department has a variety of missions, including securing the Capitol complex, combating terrorism, and protecting dignitaries. Capitol Police has requested a funding increase of $476 million for fiscal year 2018, and aims to hire 72 more officers and 48 civilians next year. 

Gainer said an increase in resources could help, but the number of events with groups of lawmakers presents a logistical challenge.

“There are an awful lot of events in greater [the] Washington area and the Hill where you get a dozen or more members of Congress together,” Gainer said.  “And frankly, there’s just not the assets to dedicate the type of security you might want in order to absolutely prevent this.”

Lawmakers raised similar questions about the feasibility of complete protection in the wake of Wednesday’s shooting.

“I think we all feel very safe within the building,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over Capitol Police funding.

“Outside of D.C. we could be at risk, but I don’t know what we can do about that,” the Florida Republican said. “We can’t put a detail on [535] people.”

Broader security questions

One GOP senator who was at the Wednesday practice expected broader discussions about security at the Capitol complex.

“There’s going to have to be some changes,” said Sen. Rand Paul. The Kentucky Republican said he has been advocating changes to Capitol security since the 2015 shooting at the French Magazine Charlie Hebdo. He declined to give details on his recommendations, but said they were related to Capitol entrances.

The shooting also heightens security concerns in a heated political environment. Lawmakers have reported that they have been receiving threats to their offices, particularly in the wake of the House passing the GOP health care bill. 

“This is exactly why there’s a lot of fear here in doing town halls at this point,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk. “Some of the things this guy has posted on Facebook, we get the same things and even worse.”

The Georgia Republican was also at practice Wednesday. He suggested lawmakers should be allowed to carry concealed weapons in the District of Columbia (though the shooting occurred in Virginia).

“I had a staff member who was in his car maybe 20 yards behind the shooter who was pinned to his car who, back in Georgia, carries a 9mm in his car,” Loudermilk said. “I carry a weapon. He had a clear shot at him. But here, we’re not allowed to carry any weapons.”

Murphy, the Democratic senator and an advocate of stricter gun laws, dismissed carrying weapons as a solution.

“The answer to the plague of gun violence in this country is not more guns,” Murphy said.

Murphy also noted that in the 10 years he’s been in Congress, two of his friends have been shot, seemingly referring to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and Scalise.

“You can write off the first one to chance but once it happens to two members of Congress it starts to look like a pattern,” Murphy said. “So yeah, I think there’s risk inherent in this job. Most days it’s theoretical. Today it’s not.”

Lindsey McPherson and Katherine Tully McManus contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.