Uniformed and plainclothes Capitol Police officers provide security for arriving Members-elect during freshman orientation week in November.
Freshman Rep. Steve Southerland got a reality check the day Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot, and it came from his 13-year-old daughter.
“One of my daughters — it’s amazing what they catch on to — she said, ‘Daddy, we feel more safe with you in Washington.’ And that’s kind of unnerving,” the Florida Republican said. “But they’re going to stay in the district, and I will commute. We’re just going to be smart.”
Like all freshman Members, Southerland was already dealing with the regular challenges of setting up an office, finding a place to live in Washington and scheduling district events. But the Arizona shooting that killed six, including one Congressional staffer, and left Giffords in critical condition, has complicated the way he and other freshman Members begin their tenures, forcing them to balance their own security — and their families’ fears — against their new duties as public officials.
Southerland said he will press on with district events, but staff will now invite local law enforcement to attend. Noting that his district staff was also rocked by the events in Tucson, Southerland said some already carry concealed weapons in accordance with Florida law. Others will be obtaining gun permits in the coming weeks.
“There is no substitute for being alert,” he said. “Down here, we’re hunters, we’re fishermen; we like taking care of ourselves. So I think the ability for our staff to go through the necessary procedures and carry concealed weapons ... it is an inexpensive way for us to take personal responsibility for our safety. I think that makes sense.”
Freshman Rep. Patrick Meehan, a former U.S. attorney, said he was in Williamsburg at a Congressional Research Service briefing with dozens of other freshmen and their families when news of the shooting started trickling in on their BlackBerrys.
“We learned of it together,” the Pennsylvania Republican said, with the celebration of their first week in Congress instantly turning somber.
He said his biggest and first concern was to reach out to his staff “who may not have been through a circumstance like this before.”
“My family has experienced some measure of insecurity before,” Meehan said, noting he received threats as a prosecutor. “We took the position then, and I try to do this now, that you try not to allow it to affect your routine.”
But Meehan said he instructed his staff to not tolerate any abuse or aggression, and would take prudent steps like coordinating with local law enforcement.
“I hope there’s not an overreaction that tries to have us put in place increased security measures that are only going to further draw on scarce resources,” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.