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Toy gun shuts down U.S. House office building

Exterior of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C.
Exterior of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C.

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Capitol Hill Police Chief Terrance Gainer says a reported gun in a U.S. House office building was a toy and part of a Halloween costume (October 30)
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CNN's Jonathan Karl reports that a toy gun triggered a security scare at the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. (October 30)
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House of Representatives
U.S. Capitol

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Thursday's security alert at a Capitol Hill government building -- prompted by a plastic, toy gun -- highlights security flaws at the complex, according to a lawmaker and congressional aide who faulted the response to the scare.

"This failed as far as I'm concerned," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat whose husband was slain and son seriously wounded by a gunman aboard a Long Island commuter train in 1993.

McCarthy spoke before police announced they had found a toy gun that was part of a Halloween costume and that there had been no intent to harm anyone.

McCarthy's office is in the Cannon House Office Building, which was locked down during the alert.

The incident began shortly after 1 p.m. when U.S. Capitol police noticed an image of what appeared to be a .38-caliber revolver on an X-ray machine at the building's south entrance.

Police notified employees in the building that they were searching for a man and a woman who breached security. They said a man grabbed a backpack and ran off after the apparent revolver was detected.

After learning of the incident, two women who work in the office of Rep. John Shimkus, R-Illinois, came forward. Shimkus' office notified Capitol Police, according to a statement released by his office.

The women had placed bags containing Halloween costumes through the X-ray machine, U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer told reporters shortly before 3 p.m.

The clothing and prop that triggered the situation was a costume of "Sydney," the character Jennifer Garner plays in ABC's "Alias."

Gainer noted that Capitol police discussed in a Thursday morning meeting their response to a scenario of someone getting through a security checkpoint with gun.

He said the three officers manning the checkpoint "were performing well within standards."

Gainer said people in the building were notified by telephone, electronic messaging pages and announcements over the intercom system.

He gave his force an "A" for its response to the alert, saying the lockdown and search unfolded in an orderly fashion.

McCarthy disagreed. She said she learned of reports of a possible gunman in the building from her staff in New York. And then, she said, she heard it on television, before her Washington office received any formal notification from the Capitol Police.

A pager-type alarm, issued to each congressional office, did not go off, she said, despite drills this past summer for such a scenario.

"I'm not concerned," McCarthy said. "I'm mad."

One congressional staffer who listened to Gainer's briefing also took issue with the chief's description of an orderly and prompt response.

The employee, who declined to give his name, said there was initial confusion inside the building about whether staffers should evacuate or stay in their offices.

The staffer said the office he worked in did not receive any notification from the Capitol Police until 30 minutes after the toy gun apparently first passed through the checkpoint.

"It was a half hour," the staffer said, pondering what could have happened if the gun were real. "You can kill a lot of people in a half hour."

At the afternoon press briefing, Gainer described how the incident unfolded.

The officer at the machine turned briefly to answer a question from another person, and the women took the bags and left the checkpoint, he said.

The officer then saw the image of what appeared to be a revolver on the screen and triggered the security alert.

After learning of the incident, the women contacted police, who questioned them and determined the gun was a toy, said Gainer. He called the episode "an unusual set of Halloween circumstances."

"I don't think they had any ill intent," Gainer said. "They're very sorry this has all happened."

The Capitol itself was not evacuated, but the House went into recess 40 minutes after the incident.

Gainer said security procedures will be reviewed, and police may slow down the speed of the conveyor belt on the X-ray machine.

"The very fact that someone brought a toy gun in, it was on the X-ray and got further into the building than I would prefer, it does show that we've got to re-evaluate how the X-ray machines are run," he said. "To that extent, it's another lesson learned."

Police initially issued an alert for a man because the officer at the X-ray machine thought the bag belonged to a man who was in the line, Gainer said. A review of a security camera tape showed that the bag actually belonged to one of the women so an additional alert with her description was released, he said.

After reviewing the tape, Gainer said it is unclear whether those involved in the incident bolted away from the security checkpoint, as had been earlier described. He said they could have been making a "casual return from lunch," though their behavior at the checkpoint is still being investigated.

The staffers were not identified, and it is unclear whether they broke any laws. Capitol police spokeswoman Jessica Gissubel said it is illegal to carry a toy gun in the District of Columbia if the fake weapon is being used to threaten or intimidate somebody.

Security has intensified around the Capitol in recent years. In 1998, a man with a history of mental illness opened fire in the Capitol and killed two security guards.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York led to sterner measures yet. Even more checkpoints, officers and barricades were added.

A visitors center to the Capitol is also under construction as part of enhanced security around the building.

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