Lawmakers on Edge, Reassessing Security, After Gabrielle Giffords Shooting

Most lawmakers provide their own security and want to be out among the people.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 9, 2011— -- The shooting Saturday of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords put Washington edge and had lawmakers, whose stock in trade is their ability to get out and interact with the people, reassessing their own security.

The ability of lawmakers to communicate and interact with their constituents is central to their job.

It was not lost on lawmakers that during a ceremonial reading of the Constitution Friday, Giffords read the first amendment, where the right of the people to peacably assemble and seek redress from their government is enshrined.

This afternoon the House leadership, including Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, held an extraordinary bi-partisan call to brief members on the Arizona shooting and the Congressional response.

"Yesterday was a grim day for our institution and our country," Boehner said. "Gabby was attacked while doing the most fundamental duty of a member of Congress -- listening to her constituents."

"As you've heard me say, an attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve," the Ohio Republican said later in the call. "This is a time for the House to pull together as an institution -- one body, unified in our common purpose of serving the American people and fighting for the freedom and justice guaranteed to all by our Constitution."

Boehner announced there will be a bi-partisan security briefing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday by the Capitol Police, Sergeant at Arms and FBI.

"This is not simply an attack on Ms. Giffords," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said on CBS today. "This is an attack on democracy itself, on the ability as she said in that reading of the First Amendment, to peaceably assemble, to come together to talk to one another. That's what democracy is all about; representatives listening to their constituents and trying to reflect their views."

The most immediate effect of the shooting on official Washington is that House Republicans decided to postpone their plan to vote Wednesday on repealing President Obama's controversial health care reform, even though there is no indication the law in any way motivated the suspected shooter.

Authorities in Arizona were pursing a second person in connection with the shooting and trying to determine if the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, acted alone or has ties to any radical group.

FBI Director Robert Mueller and federal authorities rushed to Arizona to lead the investigation and response to the shooting, in which six people died and Giffords and 13 others were wounded. U.S. Capitol Police also issued a warning to members of Congress to be on high alert.

"While the United States Capitol Police does not specifically discuss the security of Members of Congress including details on our protective measures, the United States Capitol Police has communicated with House Members of Congress advising them to take reasonable and prudent precautions regarding their personal safety and security," said Sgt. Kimberly Schneider of the U.S. Capitol Police in a written statement.

Leaders in both parties pledged not to let the events in Arizona bring Capitol Hill to a full halt.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi went on with a planned constituent event in San Francisco Saturday.

Boehner held a special press conference this morning where he argued that lawmakers' duty is to carry on with their jobs despite the shooting.

"Public service is a high honor, but these tragic events remind us that all of us in our roles in service to our fellow citizens comes with a risk," Boehner said in Ohio. "This inhuman act should not and will not deter us from our calling to represent our constituents and to fulfill our oaths of office. No act, no matter how heinous, must be allowed to stop us from our duty."

Boehner and Pelosi, as leaders, both rate round-the-clock protection from the Capitol Police.

Most lawmakers, like Giffords, do not get special police protection.

Attacks on members of Congress are rare. The last federal lawmaker to die violently was Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif., who was shot and killed in Guyana in 1978 while on a trip investigating the Jonestown cult settlement there.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., was with Ryan as an aide in 1978 and was shot five times. She survived and now represents the same Northern California district that Ryan did.

She told ABC News Saturday she's adamant, at least for her part, that security for members of congress not be increased at home.

"I certainly don't want to have to be required to have a police presence," she said. "If that's the case, then it's time for me to no longer be a congressmember."

It is not clear what motivated the shooter in Arizona.

Giffords' Arizona district office was vandalized after her vote for the health care bill in March 2010, but there are no references to that law in the rambling posts on the shooting suspect's Myspace and YouTube pages.

Her seat was one of the most competitive in the country and she barely defeated Tea Party favorite Jim Kelly last November.

Despite the lack of an apparent correlation between Giffords' shooting and any specific political vote or belief, some Democrats said they were taking special precautions after the shooting.

"We have taken appropriate steps in light of the tragedy today in Arizona," Justin Ohlemiller, district director for Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., told The Associated Press.

Lawmakers are left to their own devices for security at home. A staffer to Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, was arrested in 2007 when he accidentally tried to take the senator's gun into a Capitol Hill Office building.

At the time, Webb said lawmakers have to be careful.

"I'm a strong supporter of the Second Amendment; I have had a permit to carry a weapon in Virginia for a long time; I believe that it's important; it's important to me personally and to a lot of people in the situation that I'm in to be able to defend myself and my family," he said.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said, "it's a more dangerous time" for those serving in government.

"I'm not going to comment with great specificity about how I defend myself, but I do feel I have that right," he said. "We are required to defend ourselves."