Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks was taking swings in the batting cage early Wednesday morning at the Republicans’ congressional baseball practice session in Alexandria, Virginia, when he heard a shooter open fire — and briefly caught a glimpse of a white, middle-aged male.
“I heard this loud ‘Blam,’” Brooks said. “I thought it was a car backfiring or something.”
The gunman, later identified as James T. Hodgkinson, wounded five people at the practice at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, two Capitol Police officers, a Hill staffer and a former staffer.
“I saw it was a rifle sticking through the chain-link fence, or right up next to the chain-link fence as the shooter was shooting away,” Brooks said. “It took two, three, four, five shots for me to recognize the danger and the precarious position I was in because I was real close to it.”
Brooks said he and a few others took cover behind the batting cage tarp before scurrying to the other side of the field and diving into the first-base dugout for cover, where Brooks and a staffer unlooped their belts and applied a tourniquet to one of the staffers who’d been shot in the leg.
As they lay prone in the first-base dugout, a Capitol Police officer who’d been wounded opened fire toward the third-base dugout, where the shooter had holed up.
The proximity of the noise from the officer’s gunshots initially startled Brooks and his companions.
“At first, you don’t know if that’s a second shooter,” the Alabama Republican said. “But it turned out to be one of our guys, shooting back, risking themselves, giving us protection.”
“When I say, ‘risking themselves,’ I mean you’re shooting 90 to 100 feet away, one guy’s got a rifle, and you’ve got a pistol,” he continued. “That’s not a fair fight.”
The shootout lasted for about a minute or more, Brooks recalled.
“I don’t know how long that was, it seemed like forever,” he said.
For years, GOP lawmakers have used the field in Alexandria to practice for the annual Congressional Baseball Game between Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
There had never been any issues with the neighborhood, Brooks said.
“The neighbors have always been wonderful,” he said. “They’d be walking their dogs or getting an early morning walk. … We chat with them, we have a pleasant time.”
“I don’t know where this gentleman came from — I shouldn’t call him a gentleman — where this shooter came from,” the congressman said.
Speaking to reporters hours after the incident, Brooks repeatedly praised the actions of the Capitol Police officers who stopped the shooter and mitigated the carnage.
“For the grace of God, and the aim of … our Capitol Police officers shooting back, you know, I’d be with Steve Scalise in a hospital someplace along with some of our other people,” Brooks said.
The congressman didn’t dismiss questions on Hodgkinson’s motivations, indicating the gunman probably had a political agenda.
“It’s a Republican baseball practice, United States congressmen,” Brooks said. “I cannot imagine him going there for any other reason than to try and kill as many congressmen as he could.”
Hodgkinson’s hometown newspaper, the Belleville News-Democrat, reported that he belonged to several anti-Republican groups, including one called "Terminate the Republican Party.” He had also been a volunteer for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful presidential campaign last year. (Sanders later condemned the shooting in a speech on the Senate floor.)
Brooks said lawmakers understand there are people out there who want to do them harm but he stressed that the danger of serving in the Capitol is something that “goes with the job.”
“I’ve had my name on the internet with a bounty, if you shoot me and some other congressmen,” he said. “So we understand the risk.”
Brooks said he and his GOP colleagues at the practice were lucky that Scalise, third in the House chain of command, was with them because his presence meant they had a security presence for protection.
“That was a blessing,” Brooks said. “I don’t know if we would have gotten that police protection or Capitol Police protection without him, but we sure got it with him.”
Members of Congress generally do not travel with a security detail once they leave the Hill unless they request one.
Asked if Wednesday’s episode would have an effect on his stance on gun rights and restrictions, Brooks said he remains in favor of a close reading of the Second Amendment, which grants Americans the right to bear arms.
“The Second Amendment, the right to bears arms, is to ensure we always have a republic,” he said.
But the Alabama lawmaker said there will always be bad actors who abuse constitutional liberties.
“As with any constitutional provision in the bill of rights, there are adverse aspects to each of those rights that we enjoy as people,” he said. “What we saw here was one of the bad side effects of someone not exercising those rights properly.”
Brooks said he was not opposed to going ahead with the Congressional Baseball Game, scheduled to take place Thursday evening at Nationals Park, joining the chorus of defiant lawmakers who say they won’t cower in fear after the shooting.
“If we play tomorrow I’ll play,” Brooks said, “but if we decide to cancel it I hate to think that this guy, this shooter, was successful with a charitable event.”
The game is expected to raise an estimated $550,000 to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington, the Washington Literacy Center, and the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation.