WASHINGTON — Members of Congress are reevaluating their in-district security after Capitol Police advised members and staff to take “reasonable and prudent precautions regarding their personal security” following the shootings in Tucson today. Several Minnesota representatives said they were “devastated,” “stunned” and “in tears” after hearing news of the attacks.
At least six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, are dead and a congresswoman is clinging to life after a shooting at a congressional meet-and-greet in Tuscon.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, is in critical condition this afternoon after a gunman approached her from behind and fired at close range at the back of her head. Her physician said the bullet passed through her head, but that she had made it through surgery and he was as optimistic as he could be about her recovery.
Several additional people were shot in the attack. Giffords and four others are in critical condition in an area hospital. In total, 12 have been publicly identified so far as injured.
The suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, is in police custody. Videos on his YouTube page included creepy statements, including one where Loughner said: “I define terrorist. Thus, a terrorist is a person who employs terror or terrorism, especially as a political weapon.”
His YouTube and MySpace page (before the latter was scrubbed) declare beliefs that the government is regulating grammar, that Congress has passed “treasonous” laws and that the United States needs its currency backed by gold or silver. His favorite books include the ”Communist Manifesto” and Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
All members of Congress were advised by U.S. Capitol Police in an early afternoon memo to take additional precautions.
“The U.S. Capitol Police are directly involved in this investigation,” the memo concluded. “As more information is developed, it will be provided. In the interim, all Members and staff are advised to take reasonable and prudent precautions regarding their personal security.”
Meanwhile, House GOP leader Eric Cantor announced Saturday that next week’s planned vote to repeal President Obama’s health-care legislation will be postponed because of the shootings.
Congressional security to be reviewed
This incident in Arizona serves as a reminder of the threats members receive on a regular basis. Rep. Betty McCollum, for one, received a death threat in October after an eight-year-old video surfaced where she omitted the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.
McCollum, Keith Ellison, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken each received a vile letter in March 2010, just after the health care bill’s passage, along with tatters of an American flag soaked in gasoline and feces.
Also at that time, Giffords’ Tuscon office was vandalized — the glass door was shattered overnight when the office was empty. When interviewed just after that incident on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown,” Giffords said she wasn’t really frightened, but noted an increase in violent political rhetoric surrounding the health care overhaul bill.
But what many don’t know is that most members of Congress don’t have any real form of security detail. The president, vice president and the like have Secret Service protection, and congressional leaders have security as well.
Most others, including Minnesota’s entire delegation, don’t. Part of that, senior staffers said, is that there’s not usually a need for it.
“We haven’t received any formal protocol changes from Capitol police — as you know there is no real formal security for members of Congress,” said Bill Harper, the chief of staff to McCollum. “We’ve only used local law enforcement when we’re concerned about disruption or disturbance — we’ve never really had an event where we were concerned about direct violence.
“I would expect new protocols to be put in place — a similar thing happened in 2001 after the anthrax scare, when new protocols were issued regarding the mail.”
It’s a different story in D.C. Every building in the Capitol complex, including congressional offices, are secured. Streets immediately surrounding buildings are often barricaded closed, and nearby ones can be within seconds. Police with automatic weapons stand visibly sentinel on the grounds. All visitors and staff must pass through a security screening process, including a metal detector.
In district, that’s almost never the case. Offices are open to the public, and pretty much anyone can just walk on in at any time.
“While we go through periodic security evaluations, anybody can go off the street and walk into our office in St. Paul,” Harper said. “We don’t expect that to change, but there will need to be a security review of the level of exposure that the congresswoman and our congressional staff face in the district, and we’re going to be looking to the experts to give us guidance and advice.”
While members are basically in a security-protected cocoon while in the Capitol, he said back in district “they’re just like every other citizen. One would not expect that their lives would be in danger simply from doing their job.”
Here is reaction from Minnesota’s congressional delegation:
Sen. Amy Klobuchar:
“Congresswoman Giffords was doing what so many public servants do every day, meeting with her constituents, listening to the people who sent her to Washington. This is a horrific tragedy, and my thoughts and prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords, her husband, family, and the other victims.”
Sen. Al Franken:
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families at this time of unspeakable tragedy”
Rep. Tim Walz:
“Gwen and I are devastated. This is an unthinkable tragedy for our nation. Attacks on public servants and their staff have no place in America. Our thoughts and prayers are with Gabrielle, her husband Mark, Gabrielle’s staff and their families, and the families of everyone who was hurt or killed today.”
Rep. Erik Paulsen:
“I am deeply saddened by the senseless attacks in Arizona whose victims include my good friend and colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. I’ve known Gabby since 2005, before either of us was elected to Congress, when we were participants in several fellowship programs. She is a bright, energetic, and hard-working public servant who always has a smile on her face. Kelly and I will keep Rep. Giffords, her husband Mark and family, and the other victims and their families in our prayers.”
Rep. Betty McCollum:
“The shooting today in Tucson of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, at least one member of her staff, and a number of citizens is a monstrous act of violence that is senseless and tragic. I am praying for Congresswoman Giffords, her staff members, all the victims of this attack, and their families.”
Rep. Keith Ellison:
“I am greatly saddened by the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and numerous others today in Tuscon, Arizona. Since entering Congress with her in 2007, I have known Gabby to be a selfless public servant, dedicated to her constituents and her country. This shooting is an attack on democracy itself. We can never allow violence, threats, and intimidation to prevail. Americans will never bow to the gun.
“I wish to express my deepest sympathy to her family, her staff, and the other victims of this horrible act of violence. I pray for the full recovery of Rep. Giffords and others who were wounded.
“As Americans, let us forever stand for settlement of differences – political and otherwise – with peaceful means.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann:
“My tears are flowing, and I am stunned and angered that Gabby Giffords was savagely gunned down while performing her congressional duties. I am praying for Gabby, and my thoughts, prayers, and deepest sympathy go out to her family, as well as the families of each of the victims.
“Gabby Giffords governed with integrity and wisdom. We came to Congress together and I had the privilege of knowing her as a friend and colleague.
“It is my hope and expectation that the coward who carried out this horrific act of violence will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I extend my hand of friendship to her family and staff and will keep them in my prayers.”
Rep. Collin Peterson:
“I was shocked and saddened to hear of the shooting of my colleague and friend Gabrielle Giffords, and other staff and constituents in Tucson today.
“Gabby is a terrific Congresswoman, and someone who works very well with members on both sides of the aisle. She is really an up-and-coming leader in Congress. My prayers are with her and her family as she fights to survive, and my thoughts go out to the families of those who died or were injured in this senseless act of violence.”
Rep. Chip Cravaack:
“I was shocked and deeply saddened upon learning of today’s tragic shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, members of the Congresswoman’s staff, citizens attending the event, and the death of U.S. District Court Judge John Roll. There is no place for violence at any level of the political discourse in America. My thoughts and prayers are with Representative Giffords, her family, Justice Roll’s family, and all of the victims of this senseless act.”
Saturday night, as he was set to greet hundreds of citizens at an open inaugural bash in Minneapolis, Gov. Mark Dayton told reporters: “I’m excited about the party, but it’s just a very sad evening to hold it with the terrible atrocity that occurred in Arizona.”
He said he didn’t know Giffords. He said he was thinking of her and the other victims. He said he wasn’t aware that security had been increased for the inaugural ball, but bags of those in attendance were being inspected by convention center ushers.
Dayton added: “It puts a pall over it … It’s a grim reminder of what happens when voices of extremism, their words just carry other people’s actions far beyond what’s acceptable in a civilized society.”
MinnPost journalist Jay Weiner contributed to this report.