By Emily Goodin - 04/23/13 09:00 AM EDT
Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a former sheriff, carries a gun with him when he travels around his district in order to protect himself from any possible threats.
“As a retired deputy, I will carry a gun when I’m back in Washington state,” he told The Hill. “By law I’m allowed to carry a concealed weapon.”
Members of the House and Senate leadership have the protection of U.S. Capitol Police on a constant basis, but ordinary members do not, unless there is some cause for concern.
Reichert says whenever he is in his district meeting with constituents or addressing an event, he is on constant alert, keeping his head “on swivel” to watch for any sign of trouble.
He isn’t the only lawmaker carrying a weapon.
Former Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) has said he’s carried a gun because of threats, particularly after former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in January 2011. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) also said at that time he would have a gun on him when he went around his district.
The ricin-laced letters sent to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and President Obama last week reignited the security debate on Capitol Hill and served as a reminder that lawmakers face constant threats to their safety.
From the July 1998 shooting at the Capitol that resulted in the death of two U.S. Capitol Police officers to the 2001 anthrax attacks, the contentious 2010 healthcare debate and the January 2011 shootings in Tucson, Ariz., lawmakers have faced repeated threats.
And it’s not just lawmakers who have to worry: their staffs are also in the line of fire.
It isn’t uncommon for lawmakers to receive some kind of threatening letters, especially during times they’re debating controversial legislation. Even The Hill has received threatening letters meant for members that it has turned over to U.S. Capitol Police.
At the Capitol building, there are strong security measures in place. Among other steps, the Capitol Police will issue briefings and updates as events require. When suspicious packages were believed to be in the Hart and Russell Senate Office Buildings last week, for instance, Capitol Police sent out updates to staff via email.
Lawmakers will also get notification of possible threats, and at times, are advised to use the underground tunnel system to move between their offices and the Capitol building instead of walking outside.
“I’m really concerned about my staff. Here they have protection,” Reichert said before listing the practices his district staff uses: always locking the office door, utilizing cameras outside the office so staff can see who they are buzzing in and maintaining a good relationship with local law enforcement.
“We’re very much into alert status,” he said. “Coming from the law enforcement field, my staff is probably more into security measures than other members.”
The police investigates all threats to members, and each of the lawmakers The Hill spoke to praised Capitol Police for their work.
“The United States Capitol Police maintains a commitment to the safety and security of Members of Congress within the Capitol Complex and in their home districts. Our team of dedicated officers and professional civilians are a resource for assisting stakeholders with their safety and security concerns at their home districts,” said Officer Shennell Antrobus, a Capitol Police spokesman, in a statement.
But the members also stressed the need to work with local police.
“The connection to the local enforcement agency is absolutely key,” Reichert said.
Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), whose famous political family has lost two members to assassination, faced threats of his own during the 2010 debate over healthcare reform.
“I’d say easily a third or half of my colleagues received threats,” he told The Hill. “When I held a forum on healthcare reform, I had to have undercover local police — all coordinated through Capital Police.”
Kennedy’s suggestion: “Members have to do their own internal safety plan. They have to make sure they’re working with their local law enforcement, who is always willing to be helpful, especially at public events.”
He added that “the Capitol Police do a great job at coordinating this.”
The healthcare debate resulted in many tense town hall meetings for lawmakers, and was such a stressful time that one member, then-Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), announced his retirement shortly after the healthcare law passed.
A little more than a week before the House approved the legislation, Stupak had told The Hill that fighting the measure had been “a living hell,” and that he and his wife received nasty calls at home.
And Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said earlier this month she had received death threats about gun legislation she recently introduced, which would require gun owners to have liability insurance.
“They said they were going to kill me,” she told the New York Daily News.
She told the paper that three calls, received by staffers and an intern, shook her so much she skipped a dinner event scheduled for that evening.
Security at the Capitol building is always tight, but particularly after a threat is received. And each threat typically results in more and more strict measures in its wake.
“There were several stages of escalation,” former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said of the increased security levels in the Capitol. “When I was leader, I initially had no security,” he noted. “For a couple of years I just had a driver.”
But the July 1998 shootings “changed everything,” Daschle said. The four congressional leaders — the top party chief in each chamber — got personal security details, and more metal detectors were added to the Capital.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, that personal protection was expanded down to the whip level of each party in each chamber.
All members are eligible for personal protection in case of a threat. Wicker had USCP officers following him after his office was the target of a ricin-laced letter.
Daschle was the one who ordered all mail to be opened off-site after the 2001 anthrax attacks, in which contaminated mail was sent to him, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and several media outlets.
“I had interns who were opening my mail,” Daschle said of the procedures back then. Several lawmakers, staff and journalists took Cipro to counterattack the effects of anthrax.
The letter sent to Wicker was detected at one of those off-campus mail sites, meaning the security measures put into place worked.
Daschle, who often spent August recesses driving around his state without staff in order to meet with constituents, doesn’t think everyday life for lawmakers needs to change.
“Security concerns have become more serious, but I don’t think it’s come to the point when it needs to affect casual life,” he said.
And several lawmakers don’t want it to.
“It’s one of the least of my concerns,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said when asked about possible threats when he’s back in Arizona.
McCain reluctantly took Secret Service protection in 2008 when he was the GOP presidential nominee.
“I couldn’t stand it,” he said of the 24-hour personal body detail. “No, really. It circumscribes your life, so I was very happy when it expired, even though I didn’t like the reason.”
Then he joked: “I’m going to die in bed. I promise.”