Alexandria attack spurs examination of congressional security …
Congressman Steve Scalise’s condition was upgraded from critical to serious Saturday, doctors at the Washington hospital where he is being treated said.
By Bryn Stole and John Simerman The Advocate (Baton Rouge)
BATON ROUGE — The crackle of gunfire as congressional Republicans were taking batting practice on a suburban Washington ballfield rekindled, like dozens of mass shootings before it, the contentious debate over the ready availability of weapons in the United States. But rather than spur calls for more regulation of guns, the Wednesday morning attack — which critically injured U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise of Metairie and wounded four others — has prompted many conservatives, including several Louisiana congressmen, to call for a relaxing of tight restrictions on carrying concealed firearms in the nation’s capital.
“I do think if a member wants to concealed carry, that should be their prerogative,” U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, a Republican from Richland Parish in northeastern Louisiana. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pointed to escalating, vitriolic political rhetoric and a torrent of nasty messages directed at politicians on social media and through the mail as signs of a dangerously overheated debate. U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans, the lone Democrat in Louisiana’s eight-member delegation, called the political climate “the worst I’ve ever seen” on Thursday.
Richmond went on to call security for members of Congress “embarrassingly inadequate.” But several of his fellow Louisiana congressmen said they planned to change little about their personal routines in response to the attack, adding that the cost of providing security for every U.S. senator and representative made doing so impossible. While agreeing Richmond about the noxious tone of the national discourse, several of Richmond’s counterparts said they see occasional threats as an unfortunate but largely unavoidable part of their jobs as representatives of the people, positions that require them to be available to local citizens and travel regularly back to their home districts.
“A certain amount of risk must always be assumed, and we cannot allow one clearly deranged person to alter our way of life,” said Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier. “We will not be deterred.”
Abraham, like Johnson, he has no plans to change his routine in response to the shooting. Although he said a few extra precautions might be prudent — like alerting local law enforcement to larger gatherings of congressional members such as the Wednesday morning baseball practice — Abraham said a protective guard for congressional members would get in the way of the accessibility Abraham said is a cornerstone of a U.S. representative’s job.
“We come home to our districts and just become, hopefully, part of the normal crowd with our constituents,” Abraham said. Constituents “walk up to us all the time to discuss issues, congratulate us on a particular item, talk. I can’t anticipate any of (my fellow members of Congress) not doing them, even after the shooting.”
Most also swept aside calls from several prominent Democrats and gun-control groups for tighter restrictions on weapons. Many in Louisiana’s delegation to Washington, including Scalise, boast stellar ratings from the National Rifle Association and pride themselves on putting up what they consider a tough defense of Second Amendment rights.
“Anytime anything happens with a gun, the left and anti-Second Amendment people are going to scream about gun control,” said U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, a freshman Republican from Port Barre. “It’s like the gnashing of teeth — I’m not paying attention to that.”
“I totally believe in the right to bear and carry arms,” Abraham said. “I don’t think we, as Congress, need to be reactive. I think we need to take a step back, take a deep breath and look at some issues — but not gun control. The bad guys … are going to get the guns if they want them … restricting guns from normal people never solves problems.”
Even when the Democratic Party, which has been far more supportive of gun restrictions, controlled Congress and the presidency, lawmakers pushing what they consider “common-sense” gun-control measures struggled to gather enough votes to pass measures into law. Now, with Republican majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives — plus Republican President Donald Trump, who campaigned with the backing of gun-rights groups, in the White House — expanded background checks or bans on certain categories of weapons in the wake of the shooting seem to have little chance of becoming law anytime soon. In fact, a number of conservative Republican lawmakers have said in recent days that Wednesday’s shooting might help grow a push in the opposite direction. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, introduced a bill Thursday to allow anybody with a concealed-carry permit from another state to carry a handgun in Washington, D.C., where strict gun laws have historically made obtaining a permit to carry a firearm extremely difficult.
Higgins, along with Abraham, Johnson and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Madisonville, have all signed on as co-sponsors to similar proposed legislation that would force states to recognize concealed-carry permits from elsewhere. James Hodgkinson, the gunman in Wednesday’s attack, was killed when a pair of Capitol police officers assigned to protect Scalise returned fire. Scalise has a security detail because, as the Republican majority whip, he’s a member of House leadership. Only five members of the House enjoy such protection. Several congressmen and senators who there when the gunfire erupted told reporters later that day they would’ve been largely defenseless without Scalise’s security detail. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and former presidential hopeful, said his colleagues would’ve been “sitting ducks” without the officers, both of whom were wounded in the shooting.
Abraham, who said he owns several firearms, does not carry a concealed weapon himself but said he’s already backed proposed legislation to allow those with valid concealed-carry permits — including fellow members of Congress — to carry a gun anywhere in the country.
“I do think if a member wants to concealed carry, that should be their prerogative,” Abraham said. As of Friday, it’s still unclear if any of the gun-control measures frequently proposed in response to mass shootings would have had an impact on Hodgkinson’s ability to obtain the guns used in Wednesday’s attack, which the FBI said he purchased legally. Though he’d had a number of run-ins with local law enforcement in his hometown of Belleville, Ill., Hodgkinson had never been convicted of a crime that would have prevented him from possessing a gun. Though much remains unknown about the shooter, nothing yet reported about his background would’ve prompted a gun store clerk to deny a sale.
And though the semiautomatic 7.62 mm rifle Hodgkinson used in Wednesday’s attack — an SKS, according to several media reports — delivers fearsome firepower at shorter ranges, it’s unlikely the since-lapsed 1994 federal assault weapons ban would have restricted its sale. The now-defunct law defined “assault weapons” as any semiautomatic rifle with a detachable magazine and at least two of five additional military style features: a folding stock, a pistol-style grip, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor or a mount for a grenade launcher. The FBI, which is investigating the shooting, hasn’t released details or photos of the rifle. But in its standard configuration, the SKS, a Soviet-designed rifle that fires the same type of ammunition as an AK-47, wouldn’t meet the definition.
“The only thing that could have stopped James Hodgkinson, which no one has seriously proposed, is confiscating and banning the future sale of all weapons, which the Constitution prohibits,” said John Cummins, communications director for Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy.
Higgins, a fiery and occasionally controversial representative who took office earlier this year and frequently wears a visible handgun on his hip while back in Louisiana, called it a “duty” of “red-blooded Americans” to carry the means necessary to protect themselves.
Higgins also bristled at the suggestion the availability of weapons played a factor in the shooting, comparing that to blaming water for hurricanes. He said blaming other politicians for Hodgkinson’s actions — the shooter apparently loathed President Trump and railed at Republicans in conversations and on his social media accounts — let him off the hook.
“The man Hodgkinson himself is the one responsible for the cowardly and heinous attack on innocent, unarmed men and women practicing for a baseball game,” Higgins said. “He was responsible. Not Nancy Pelosi, George Soros, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. I’m not blaming anybody but that man.”