Tensions running high after gun incident near House floor

Lawmaker tensions are running high this week after a Republican lawmaker nearly brought a gun onto the House floor, further stoking concerns about Capitol security and whether members of Congress need protection from one another.

The renewed anxiety just two weeks after the deadly Jan. 6 attack was sparked by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) when he set off a newly installed metal detector off the House floor with a concealed gun, despite a longtime ban on firearms in the chamber.

The incident followed numerous reports of other Republicans, accustomed to bypassing metal detectors in the Capitol, chafing at the new security measures. Some Democrats are now openly expressing that they don’t feel safe around certain colleagues.

The spiking anger and distrust in the wake of this month’s Capitol attack by Trump supporters has some lawmakers fearing that heated debates could turn violent.

“Look, the temperature is high right now politically,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told The Hill. “It is insane to rely on an honor system that could allow something really tragic to happen. And I would say it’s just a matter of time before it does.”

Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) said she never would have envisioned violence breaking out during floor debate when she started serving in the House in 2015. Now, she says, it’s another story.

“You can’t be afraid that the person that you’re having a little argument with on the floor with C-SPAN watching is going to pull a gun and, like, shoot you,” Rice said.

“If you had said that to me six years ago I’d say, ‘Whoever is afraid of that is crazy. That would never happen.’ Now? Sorry. All bets are off. It’s a totally different climate. Totally different climate. And we have to recognize that,” she added.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — who revealed she had a “close encounter” on Jan. 6 — cited security concerns for not attending President Biden’s inauguration, saying during an interview on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time” that “we still don’t yet feel safe around other members of Congress.”

The metal detectors were installed last week after first-term GOP Reps. Lauren Boebert (Colo.) and Madison Cawthorn (N.C.) publicly discussed carrying their weapons around Capitol Hill. Both were also among several House Republicans who engaged in inflammatory rhetoric promoting former President Trump’s false claims of election fraud ahead of the Capitol attack that left five people dead.

Lawmakers in the past have occasionally turned violent during heated floor debates. Many of the physical altercations erupted during fights over slavery in the 1800s, including the infamous caning of abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner in 1856 and a House floor debate in 1858 that led to fisticuffs between Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow and South Carolina Democrat Laurence Keitt before more than 30 lawmakers joined the fighting.

Earlier this month, a fight nearly broke out between lawmakers — including Harris — during late-night debate over a GOP challenge to the Electoral College results, just hours after the pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol.

The are currently no punitive measures in place for lawmakers who sidestep Capitol Police as they make their way onto the House floor. But the House is expected to vote to enact fines — $5,000 for a first offense, $10,000 for subsequent ones — when it’s back in session during the first week of February.

Members of Congress are exempt from regulations prohibiting guns on the Capitol grounds and, until last week, from metal detectors in the complex.

Lawmakers can keep guns in their offices or transport them — unloaded and securely wrapped — elsewhere in the Capitol complex under a 1967 rule. But they are forbidden from bringing them into the House or Senate chambers or adjacent areas.

All staff, journalists and visitors, meanwhile, must go through metal detectors to enter the Capitol or surrounding office buildings and cannot carry firearms anywhere on the premises unless specifically authorized.

Harris’s office suggested the gun carried by the Maryland Republican was for self-defense, saying that he and his family have faced security threats recently.

“Because his and his family’s lives have been threatened by someone who has been released awaiting trial, for security reasons, the Congressman never confirms whether he nor anyone else he’s with are carrying a firearm for self-defense. As a matter of public record, he has a Maryland Handgun Permit. And the Congressman always complies with the House metal detectors and wanding. The Congressman has never carried a firearm on the House floor,” Harris’s office said in a statement. 

Lawmakers in both parties have faced a spike in threats against them since 2016. Some argue that the bigger threat to lawmakers comes from extremists who also threaten family members.

“I think more of the threat is less about the members, frankly, and more about others who are like the lawless thugs that attacked the Capitol and these domestic terror groups that have obviously led to us putting into having 20,000 National Guard around the Capitol,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.).

The New Jersey Democrat is circulating a letter calling for bolstered security funding for members’ offices, regular briefings from Capitol security officials and efforts to keep members’ personal information off the internet.

It’s not clear how long National Guard troops will remain at the Capitol complex or when the eight-foot-tall perimeter fencing will be removed.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Friday that “keeping the Capitol safe cannot and will not require huge numbers of uniformed troops and vast systems of emergency fencing to remain in place forever.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing funding for the legislative branch, dismissed the idea of installing magnetometers to enter the upper chamber.

“Our members seem so far to be much more responsible about the security of the building,” Murphy said.

In the meantime, some House Democrats, led by Huffman and Rice, say the magnetometers outside the House chamber should be made permanent in addition to ending the gun exemption for lawmakers.

Both acknowledged that it may also be time to require lawmakers to go through metal detectors while entering office buildings in the Capitol complex like everyone else.

“Just treat members like every other member of the public coming into the Capitol,” Huffman said. “You can’t have an honor system with dishonorable people who think the rules don’t apply to them.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Andy Harris Capitol breach Chris Murphy Donald Trump Firearms Handguns House floor Jared Huffman Josh Gottheimer Kathleen Rice metal detectors Mitch McConnell Violence

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