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.
Leadership hasn’t offered specific guidance to freshmen, though a bipartisan conference call Sunday provided Members, spouses and staff an opportunity to ask questions about security measures and listen to the advice of House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood. House Members are scheduled to receive a fuller security briefing this afternoon.
“We have a number of new Members who know nothing about this. This is their first experience,” Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) said after Sunday’s call. “It’s very difficult on spouses especially, people who are away and don’t understand what can happen here.”
Staffers are finding themselves caught between their own fears and the desire to keep doing the job.
One Democratic aide felt the chill of vulnerability after Giffords was shot, noting, “It could have been any one of our bosses.” Some attended a vigil at the base of the Capitol on Saturday night to honor Giffords and show support for her staff, and countless others grieved over drinks when they returned to work Monday.
“I think it really has shaken up a lot of people,” a Senate Democratic aide said. “I’ve had a ton of conversations with a lot of people around here that feel terrible for her staff and have seen how vulnerable we all are. We’ve all done these large public events, and this just points out how vulnerable people are.”
But aides do not want to close themselves off to constituents or limit the access of their bosses to the public. An aide to a freshman Republican said his office was considering whether to restructure town hall-style events, perhaps by inviting smaller groups and staging a check-in area at the door.
Some also fear a stigma will be attached to any Congressional event in the wake of the Tucson tragedy. Freshman Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), who was beginning to plan her own “Congress on Your Corner” events, said all those gatherings are now being reconsidered.
“I’m now looking [at] whether the constituents are going to feel like they don’t want to be exposed to us until some of this really dies down,” said Hanabusa, who is one of nine new Democratic lawmakers.
Several other freshman lawmakers told Roll Call they intend to continue their public events.
Freshman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said his staff will coordinate public events with Capitol Police and local law enforcement when planning town halls and public events to ensure safety.
“It’s my job to listen to their concerns on issues Wisconsin and our nation are facing,” he said. “I plan to continue to do just that.”
Some Republican aides are also re-evaluating the rhetoric they use while the political parties have suspended many activities this week in the wake of the tragedy.
“I think anyone would be lying if they said we didn’t think about things like that,” a GOP strategist said.
Rep. Allen West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who has been criticized by Democrats for his fiery rhetoric and violent metaphors, told the Sun Sentinel that he is not going to tone down his language.
But he acknowledged that his own family was deeply affected by the attack.
“The biggest concern for my wife is her husband,” the Florida Republican said. “My wife does not want to see me lose my life. She has weathered the storm for 22 years of me being in combat zones, so it is a little bit stressful and tough on her.”
West also noted that he has a concealed weapon permit and has the option of carrying a weapon.
West said in a statement that he will “take the necessary precautions to keep myself, my family, my staff and the constituents of the 22nd District of Florida safe” at his events.