Navy Yard Shooting Caused a Capitol Lockdown

As a rain moves in, the Capitol building is reflected in the Capitol Reflecting Pool on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 13, 2011, as budget negotiations continued. 
Michael Catalin and Billy House
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Michael Catalin Billy House
Sept. 16, 2013, 2:22 p.m.

Monday’s deadly shoot­ings at the Wash­ing­ton Navy Yard had Cap­it­ol Po­lice car­ry­ing auto­mat­ic weapons and sent the Sen­ate in­to an early ad­journ­ment for the day, not long be­fore the cham­ber is­sued an hours-long lock­down.

The moves were only pre­cau­tion­ary, but they served as a stark re­mind­er of the ex­treme se­cur­ity that can come in­to play at the Cap­it­ol, which has been both the scene of a shoot­ing and the tar­get of ter­ror­ist at­tacks in re­cent dec­ades.

“Com­ing in­to the Cap­it­ol, I knew something was up, be­cause I saw our po­lice of­ficers with their weapons, auto­mat­ic weapons that they usu­ally don’t carry, at least in view of every­body on Con­sti­tu­tion Av­en­ue and oth­er places,” said Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev.

From the Sen­ate floor, Re­id, who was a Cap­it­ol Po­lice of­ficer while at­tend­ing uni­versity (badge num­ber 363, he re­called) and Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., praised law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials and first re­spon­ders be­fore re­cess­ing.

“These kinds of in­cid­ents al­ways re­mind us how fra­gile life is,” Mc­Con­nell said. “They also re­mind those of us who work in and around the Cap­it­ol how much we all owe to the men and wo­men who work so hard to keep us safe every day.”

Sen­ate Ser­geant at Arms Ter­rance Gain­er placed the Sen­ate com­plex on lock­down in the late af­ter­noon. “Our im­me­di­ate con­cern has been the un­knowns,” Gain­er said in a state­ment. “Is this an act of work­place vi­ol­ence or something more sin­is­ter?”

House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, also is­sued a state­ment. “This has been a dark day, and we know more of them lie ahead for the fam­il­ies of the vic­tims. Hop­ing that they find com­fort — and an­swers — is at the top of our minds,” Boehner said in the state­ment. “Next, we ought to say ‘Thank-you’ to the first re­spon­ders and law-en­force­ment pro­fes­sion­als — in­clud­ing Cap­it­ol Po­lice — who did their jobs and saved lives.”

Yet the House did not lock down, which pro­duced an at-times con­found­ing se­cur­ity en­vir­on­ment at the Cap­it­ol, with po­lice of­fer­ing con­flict­ing dir­ec­tions about where staffers and oth­ers who work on the Hill could and could not go. A re­port­er try­ing to walk from the Sen­ate side of the ro­tunda to the House side was stopped by po­lice, but was per­mit­ted to move from cham­ber to cham­ber on the Cap­it­ol’s third floor.

“It’s a very flu­id situ­ation,” one Cap­it­ol po­lice of­ficer said.

Bey­ond Monday’s re­cess, the shoot­ing also promp­ted the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee to res­ched­ule a hear­ing on stand-your-ground gun laws from Tues­day to Wed­nes­day.

It’s un­clear ex­actly how many times either cham­ber of Con­gress has re­cessed be­cause of a se­cur­ity threat like the one at the Navy Yard, ac­cord­ing to the Sen­ate his­tor­i­an’s of­fice. The House re­cessed in 2001 after an an­thrax scare, but the Sen­ate re­mained in ses­sion for sev­er­al days, As­so­ci­ate His­tor­i­an Betty Koed said.

Fif­teen years ago, a lone gun­man with a his­tory of men­tal ill­ness entered a first-floor en­trance of the Cap­it­ol with tour­ists, then burst through a se­cur­ity check­point, shot and killed two of­ficers, and bolted in­to nearby of­fices of then-House Re­pub­lic­an Whip Tom DeLay. The 1998 ram­page by Rus­sell We­st­on Jr. jarred Con­gress to tight­en se­cur­ity for the Cap­it­ol and sur­round­ing areas. And three years later, the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks led to even tight­er se­cur­ity.

As late as the 1990s, the area in and around the Cap­it­ol re­sembled a col­lege cam­pus or park, with much of that feel­ing owed to the re­design by renowned ar­chi­tect Fre­d­er­ick Law Olms­ted in the 1870s. But today, the Cap­it­ol com­plex that in­cludes the House and Sen­ate of­fice build­ings, and the nearby Su­preme Court and Lib­rary of Con­gress, has be­come a labyrinth of jer­sey bar­ri­ers, blocked-off streets and build­ing en­trances, and traffic check­points. The se­cur­ity even ex­tends un­der­ground. The Cap­it­ol Vis­it­or Cen­ter, con­struc­ted and of­fi­cially opened in Decem­ber 2008 un­der the East Front plaza, now serves as the se­cur­ity screen­ing fun­nel for vis­it­ors to the Cap­it­ol.

When We­st­on went on his deadly at­tack, there were about 1,200 Cap­it­ol Po­lice of­ficers. The force now in­cludes 1,724 sworn of­ficers (plus 353 ci­vil­ian staffers), some equipped with more-power­ful high-caliber weapons, night-vis­ion cap­ab­il­it­ies, and bet­ter gear to pro­tect them­selves from bul­lets.

In ad­di­tion, se­cur­ity sys­tems and pro­cesses — such as mag­ne­to­met­ers to de­tect met­al ob­jects — are now in place at build­ing en­trances, and emer­gency-evac­u­ation meas­ures are in place for the com­plex. Sys­tems are also in place to safe­guard elec­tron­ic com­mu­nic­a­tions for Con­gress, and re­lo­ca­tion drills are held reg­u­larly. Mail-screen­ing pro­cesses have been moved to off-site loc­a­tions to thwart the use of reg­u­lar mail to de­liv­er deadly chem­ic­als.

Of course, We­st­on’s at­tack — and the failed tar­get­ing of the Cap­it­ol on 9/11 — cer­tainly wer­en’t the only times in his­tory that vi­ol­ence has threatened the build­ing. In 1814, Brit­ish forces set fire to the Cap­it­ol. In 1835, Pres­id­ent An­drew Jack­son was al­most as­sas­sin­ated out­side the Cap­it­ol ro­tunda. And in 1954, four Pu­erto Ric­an na­tion­al­ists wounded five law­makers when they fired guns from the vis­it­ors’ gal­lery above the House floor.

Still, it wasn’t so long ago when the grounds sur­round­ing the build­ing seemed much more open. Hill res­id­ents and tour­ists could jog or sight­see freely around the out­side bal­conies and steps, en­joy­ing spec­tac­u­lar views of the mall or just re­lax­ing. Not any­more.

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