The challenge of protecting members of Congress

Published 2:32 PM EDT, Wed June 14, 2017

Story highlights

Julian Zelizer: Congress intended to be open institution, with members accessible to public

He says security has to be rethought after horrific shooting at GOP baseball practice

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) —  

Wednesday’s horrific shooting at a Republican congressional baseball practice in Virginia could have been even more devastating had the Capitol Police not acted in such heroic fashion.

This is not the first time there have been violent attacks against members of Congress, who historically receive far less protection than the president. The presence of Capitol Police on the scene apparently was due to the fact that one of those taking part, Rep. Steve Scalise, is the House majority whip and receives added protection as a member of the House leadership.

The fact that the alleged shooter was a Bernie Sanders volunteer and appears to have engaged in strong anti-Trump rhetoric in his social postings will inevitably generate conversations about whether partisanship has gone too far and we need to pull back.

Wasting no time, Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, was quick to try to take partisan advantage of the situation by claiming that “the violence is appearing in the streets, and it’s coming from the left.” Of course to blame the left for such a deranged person would be to make the same mistake as blaming all conservatives for acts of violence by those on the right.

Although this story has rightly gripped the nation’s attention and should be deplored, the reality is that violence against members of Congress has not generally changed the course of history.

There is a history of assassination attempts, some successful and some foiled. Because Congress is such an open institution compared with the executive branch there are many more points of vulnerability for members. We want members to interact with constituents and the media, so we have always been reluctant to create rigid barriers between them and their constituency.

Extremists take advantage of that openness. One pacifist assaulted Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts in 1919 for supporting the entrance of the United States into World War I. Lodge was not injured.

On September 8, 1935, an assassin killed Sen. Huey “Kingfish” Long, a Louisiana populist who was challenging Franklin Roosevelt, arguing that the President had failed to do enough to redistribute wealth in America. Shots were fired at Sen. John Bricker of Ohio on July 12, 1947, by a former US Capitol Police officer who had been discharged from his job after Republicans took over the chambers. The shooter missed.

In a shocking incident on March 1, 1954, Puerto Rican separatists fired on members of the House, wounding five of them (Clifford Davis, Alvin Morell Bentley, Benton Franklin Jensen, George Hyde Fallon and Kenneth Allison Roberts). Standing in the visitor galleries, The New York Times reported, the shooters “shouted for the freedom of their homeland as they fired murderously although at random from a spectators’ gallery just above the House floor. …” A lot of members, one House page recalled, “heard pop-pop-pop-pop on, and they thought it was firecrackers.” The separatists did not help their cause.

On January 8, 2011, a gunman shot Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords in the head as she was at a “Congress on Your Corner” gathering with constituents at a grocery store. While Giffords was talking to a couple, the shooter approached her and fired.

After a long recovery, Giffords became a powerful advocate for gun control, along with her husband, Mark Kelly. On Wednesday, she tweeted, “My heart is with my former colleagues, their families & staff, and the US Capitol Police- public servants and heroes today and every day.” Some gun control advocates pushed for tighter regulations after the Giffords shooting – but to no effect.

In the era when relations in Congress were gradually breaking down over the issue of slavery, friends and colleagues in the legislative branch often inflicted violence on each other. In the 19th century, as the historian Joanne Freedman has reminded us, Congress was a much more violent place than it is today. Members of Congress came to work armed with weapons and often participated in duels.

In 1831, for instance, congressional candidate Spencer Pettis challenged Thomas Biddle to a duel after Pettis had criticized his brother. After Biddle confronted him, both men engaged in a duel and were killed.

In 1859, Sen. David Broderick of California, a prominent anti-slavery Free Soiler, found himself in growing conflict with his friend David Terry, who had been chief justice of the California Supreme Court and an advocate of expanding slavery. When Terry blamed Broderick for his re-election loss in blistering terms, Broderick responded by calling him a “miserable wretch.” The two men met for a duel. Terry shot Broderick, who died three days later.

The most famous of all these incidents took place when US Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Republican Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts into a bloody pulp with his walking cane in 1856 at the height of the tensions over slavery. Of course, none of this violence over slavery was able to prevent a Civil War.

Get our free weekly newsletter

Nor is it likely that Wednesday’s horrible incident will do much to change the ways and means of Washington. The sources of our political tensions are deeply rooted in the way that our political institutions work. Even the shock and awe of these kinds of attacks rarely have the capacity to change the way that politicians and voters think about their political world.

If anything practical comes out of Wednesday morning’s horror, it will be a reminder we need to be doing much more to protect the home front. There is some precedent for reform. After Rep. William Graves of Kentucky killed Rep. John Cilley of Maine in a duel in 1838, Congress imposed a prohibition on pistol duels in the District of Columbia. After anthrax spores were found in letters sent to Sens. Patrick Leahy and Thomas Daschle in 2001, Congress began screening all the mail that came into the building.

Today it will be striking that for all the talk about terrorism and shoring up surveillance, members of Congress can still be so exposed.

Therefore, let’s begin with some basics – provide much better protection to the men and women who devote their lives to working in Congress.