‘I still don’t feel safe’: House lawmakers adjust to metal detectors, new normal

‘Airport lobby’ vibes linger outside the historic chamber

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks through a metal detector before entering the House floor on January 21, 2021. Lingering fears after the Capitol storming led to metal detectors being installed outside the House chamber. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks through a metal detector before entering the House floor on January 21, 2021. Lingering fears after the Capitol storming led to metal detectors being installed outside the House chamber. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Posted March 12, 2021 at 3:19pm

Since January lawmakers have been queuing up at the chamber doors, rummaging through their pockets and sliding bags and other belongings across a table before they walk through the metal detectors. It’s a common sight at sports stadiums or concert venues, less so in the House of Representatives. 

“This is bulls---,” Rep. Rodney Davis said on Jan. 12, summing up how some Republicans feel about the new security measure.

Two months later, the outrage has cooled somewhat, but a question remains: Is this the new normal?

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Republicans who once made a scene, shouting at Capitol Police or dodging the screenings, are now complying as quietly as they would at the airport. They may not be happy about it, but it’s starting to feel routine. 

Drab and grey, the metal detectors are either symbols of broken trust or hollow security theater, depending on who you ask. In interviews around the Capitol hallways over the last couple weeks, members of Congress said they don’t see them disappearing anytime soon.

‘I feel like that’s worth it’

Rep. Pramila Jayapal said she’s had a knee replacement, which causes the detectors to go off every time. But she gets peace of mind from knowing her fellow House members don’t have guns in the chamber.

“It’s a little bit of an inconvenience, but if I get to stay alive, I feel like that’s worth it,” the Washington Democrat said.

Asked what she feared from her colleagues, Jayapal said “who knows,” pointing to Republican lawmakers who say President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.

“Most of them voted to overturn the election” on the same day a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, she said. “I was trapped in the gallery and really didn't know if I was going to make it out, and I still don’t feel safe. So the magnetometers help me just a little bit.”

Officials scrambled to tighten security after Jan. 6, adding fences around the perimeter of the complex. While those are meant to repel violent intruders, the new metal detectors are different. Stationed right outside the historic chamber where lawmakers vote and debate, they’re aimed at the enemy within — namely, any member of Congress who tries to carry a weapon onto the House floor.

Firearms have been banned from the Capitol complex since 1967, thanks to a law signed by Lyndon B. Johnson. Lawmakers enjoy an exception for unloaded, securely wrapped guns stored in their offices or carried outside on the grounds. Fear that members would bring weapons to the House floor spiked this year, as Lauren Boebert of Colorado vowed to carry her Glock to Congress and fellow freshman Madison Cawthorn told the Smoky Mountain News he felt protected during the mob attack on the Capitol because he was armed.

Screening outside the House chamber is all well and good, some Democrats said this month, but it doesn’t make them feel much safer.

“It doesn’t follow up in the hallways, and it certainly isn’t in committee rooms,” said Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar. “So it is pretty tense out here trying to work in an environment where you’re not sure if you feel secure.”

While everyone else has to pass through metal detectors when they enter any external door of the Capitol or office buildings, lawmakers can just go around them, bypassing those machines. That should change, said Rep. Mark Takano.

“What would make me feel safe is if we just had a protocol that no members were able to bring any kind of weapon onto the complex,” the California Democrat said. “We would all be subjected to magnetometers on the perimeter.”

Credible threats

When Davis called the screenings “bulls---” back in January, he wasn’t the only one riled up. Other Republicans reportedly shouted at Capitol Police officers or brushed forcefully past them, refusing to be wanded after setting off the machines. 

Some vowed to flout the rules and never submit, but after Democrats pushed through a resolution imposing steep fines of $5,000 for the first offense and $10,000 for the second, just a couple members earned citations. Both Louie Gohmert of Texas and Andrew Clyde of Georgia have filed appeals.

Gohmert told reporters he was fined $5,000 after leaving the chamber for a moment to go to the bathroom. 

“Nobody had ever required I be wanded coming back from the bathroom,” he said. “I wasn’t in there a couple minutes, so anyway it was pretty ridiculous.” 

Georgia Rep. Jody B. Hice said the screenings are unnecessary because members of Congress have “already been vetted by the American people.”

“It’s just nonsense,” he said. 

At least one Republican compared going to work to going to the airport.

“We go through magnetometers in federal buildings and airports all over the place, so if leadership feels that they're necessary, I’m not going to question that,” Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick said. “I just hope that it’s based on need, and intelligence and all that.”

Part of the building 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t say how long the metal detectors might stand outside the House chamber, or what would need to happen before they could come down.

“The Speaker expects security professionals to make security decisions,” spokesman Drew Hammill said in an email.

The House Sergeant at Arms and Capitol Police did not respond to requests for comment.

Rep. David Cicilline can imagine the screenings lasting the rest of the year, if not longer. “They may well have to do this until 2022,” he said. “It’s sort of sad.”

“The actions of some of our Republican colleagues have raised real questions,” he added.

Maybe the best indication that lawmakers are thinking long term came at a Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee hearing last month. Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei asked if there was a way to install magnetometers and other security tastefully and with the latest tech so it doesn’t look like an “afterthought in an airport lobby.”  

“I can say that we will definitely take this on as something that should be looked at,” Architect of the Capitol Brett Blanton said. “To find something that, frankly, blends more in with the architecture of the chamber than portable metal detectors.”

Ionic columns and white marble are probably off the table, but spokesperson Laura R. Condeluci said her agency is discussing aesthetics.

“AOC is supporting a variety of needs and requests on campus,” she said in an email. 

If leaders want to continue chamber security screenings, they can make changes to avoid queues of antsy waiting lawmakers, said James Townzen, a certified physical security professional and staff consultant at Security Risk Management Consultants. 

Solutions like increasing the number of screening lanes and designating certain access points as entrances and exits can prevent bottlenecks from forming. 

“They need to work closely with an architect and somebody who knows about metal detectors to work through the best way to efficiently get people in,” said the expert in conducting threat surveys and designing security systems and procedures.  

He also said there are new generations of metal detectors that may allow lawmakers to pass through the machine without having to take items like phones out of their pockets. But metal detectors and law enforcement officers capable of conducting searches will have to be present if they want to have a successful program. 

“They can make it look better,” he said. “But they can’t make them go away.” 

Lindsey McPherson and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.