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For some lawmakers, living with the threat of violence is nothing new.
In August, a deputy to Republican Rep. Rich Nugent, who was at the time a sheriff in Florida, was shot during a standoff.
Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), a former FBI agent, has long lived with the possibility that one of the people he met in his deep-undercover job might seek revenge on him.
And when he was a border patrol agent, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) knew the heft of a bulletproof vest on his shoulders.
For the Members of Congress who come from law enforcement backgrounds, the shooting in Arizona that wounded their colleague, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), wasn’t a shock in the way it might have been for Members whose previous jobs were as real estate agents or accountants or teachers. For them, looking over one’s shoulder is all in a day’s work.
“This has been my life,” says Nugent, a Republican who spent nearly 30 years as a police officer and sheriff. “The threat has always been there, so I am calloused to it in a way.”
Some of these Members, with their fluency in the vocabulary of security, guns and murder, have reacted warily to the Arizona shooting rampage. They say it won’t change the way they interact with constituents, but that in order for Members of Congress to remain accessible to their constituents, they and their colleagues must be better prepared to deal with the menace that lurks around them.
“The world is a dangerous place, and bad things happen every day,” says Grimm, whose FBI career included two years in which he posed as a hedge-fund manager in Manhattan, with a wire hidden underneath his pinstripe suits.
That awareness has caused Grimm and others with similar experience to coach their staffs on how to identify and respond to potential security threats. In some cases, that includes having on-staff experts.
Grimm recently hired a retired New York Police Department detective to work in his district office. In addition to the usual duties of a Congressional aide, including community outreach, the retired police officer will be the staff point person on all internal security matters.
After the incident in Arizona, “the first thing I did, after saying a prayer, was to ask him to write a memo on what we need to do,” Grimm says.
Reyes has also found it useful to have someone experienced on hand. His deputy chief of staff is retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Reyes held a staff meeting Monday to review the office plans for dealing with emergencies, and he underscored a point that he has long made to his aides. Though they might not have a badge or a gun, they possess something equally powerful: their instincts.
“Every one of us has the innate skill to recognize a situation that is abnormal or potentially dangerous,” Reyes says. “In law enforcement, we get training to recognize that.” But he tells his staffers that even they can spot a potential threat. “You assess a situation and something doesn’t look right — that’s your inner self telling you,” he says.
All three former lawmen agree that limiting their exposure to the public simply isn’t an option. And that’s not the bravado of veteran officers speaking, they say. Face-to-face contact with their constituents is a defining element of being a Member of Congress.
And despite having seen people at their worst and most inhumane, they want to be among them — at parades, at community events and at forums where constituents can share their concerns. Even if that means they must face angry voters. “You can do tele-town halls and Twitter and everything else, but there’s nothing like that personal contact,” Nugent says.
Reyes postponed one event immediately after the shooting. In his experience, copycat violence is always a possibility. But nothing else will change, he insists. “Constituent service and outreach is the backbone of why we have a job,” he says.
Drastic reactions aren’t warranted, the former lawmen say. After all, there is no such thing as perfect security. For all the metal detectors at events, beefed-up security or any other external measures that Members might take, a person bent on violence can often find a way.
A better solution, they agree, is more awareness about security threats among Members of Congress, particularly those with little experience in dealing with them. Grimm notes that freshman Members get extensive briefing and training in the ethics rules that they must abide by. But there should be more of a focus on keeping themselves safe, he says.
He says he plans to take his ideas to leadership, where he hopes his experience in the field will lend them credibility.
Nugent also plans to speak with fellow members of the House Administration Committee about stepping up training for Members and their staffs on how to spot threats and react quickly, whether in their offices or during public events. When he was a sheriff, he conducted security checks of the district office belonging to his predecessor, then-Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R).
Reducing threats can be as simple as making sure there’s a door that locks from the reception area in case there’s an intruder, he says, or installing a panic button at the front desk.
Grimm wants Congress to go a step further. He’s proposing allowing Members of Congress or their staffers to be trained and deputized to carry a weapon and act as their own security force.
For now, these Members are informally sharing advice with colleagues, urging them to talk to the Capitol Police or the Sergeant-at-Arms office and to be wary but not afraid.
Nugent says he’s also telling Members to stay in touch with local law enforcement officials in their districts, alerting them about when and where they plan to hold events. A police presence, he says, can be a deterrent and a comfort.
Such steps also protect Members’ staffers and constituents, they say. After all, although Giffords was the Arizona shooter’s target, she wasn’t his only victim. Her aide, Gabe Zimmerman, died in the shooting, and her constituents were wounded and killed.
For many Members of Congress, those shots fired in Tucson were a jolting reminder of new risks that they face. But through more jaded eyes, the risks have always been there.
“There are brothers killing brothers and sons killing fathers,” Nugent says. “This kind of thing doesn’t surprise me, but it disappoints me.”