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In backing aide, senator defends gun rights

Since 9/11, Jim Webb says, lawmakers have to defend themselves.

March 28, 2007|Joel Havemann | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) on Tuesday described as "unfortunate" an aide's arrest the day before for carrying a loaded pistol into a Senate office building, but he quickly followed that comment with an unapologetic endorsement of the right to bear arms.

Cementing his status as one of the most unconventional members of Congress, Webb said that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it has been "a more dangerous time" for people in government.

"I believe that it's important for me personally and for a lot of people in the situation that I am in to be able to defend myself and my family ... ," Webb told reporters in the Capitol. "I believe that wherever you see laws that allow people to carry [weapons], generally the violence goes down."

Webb's aide, Phillip Thompson, was arrested Monday morning when, according to Capitol Police, he tried to enter a Senate office building with a loaded handgun and two magazines of ammunition.

Police said the weapon was in a briefcase that Thompson placed on an X-ray belt at the building's entrance. Thompson told police that the gun and magazines belonged to Webb; on Tuesday, Webb said that he had not given them to Thompson and that he had been in New Orleans from Friday until Monday evening.

The senator described Thompson as "a longtime friend ... [who] has worked for me since the beginning of the campaign last year."

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for him," Webb said. "I think this is one of those very unfortunate situations where, completely inadvertently, he took the weapon into the Senate."

He did say that the situation may have developed, in part, because "we had three cars on Friday that were being moved about because of my trip."

Webb, Navy secretary under President Reagan before switching parties and running as a Democrat for the Senate last year, said he had long held a permit in Virginia to carry a weapon.

Though protection is assigned to the president and other executive branch officials, he said, "there is not that kind of protection available to people in the legislative branch."

"We are required to defend ourselves, and I chose to do so," he said.

Virginia's gun laws are relatively permissive compared with the highly restrictive law in force in the District of Columbia. A federal court has thrown out the D.C. law, which bans handguns, as unconstitutional, though it remains in force during appeal. Republicans have proposed repealing the ban as part of legislation that gives the district voting representation in the House.

Webb's position on gun control, though unpopular with liberals in Washington's northern Virginia suburbs, did not prevent him from carrying those areas decisively in November's election.

But then, Webb would never describe himself as a typical politician. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he was awarded the Navy Cross and the Silver Star for bravery as a Marine in Vietnam. Leaving the military after being severely wounded, he went to Georgetown University's law school and then became a respected and successful writer, frequently focusing on military themes.

Many politicians with military backgrounds support the Iraq war, but not Webb. Speaking out against the war, he went out of his way to point out that his son was a Marine serving in Iraq -- and even wore his son's combat boots throughout the campaign.

The strategy worked; Webb ran especially well in the state's liberal precincts. And it didn't hurt that his opponent, Sen. George Allen, who had been mentioned at the beginning of the campaign as a potential Republican presidential candidate, outraged many Virginians by referring to one of Webb's campaign workers as a "macaca," an apparent slur.

Webb did not mellow upon election to the Senate. At a White House reception for newly elected members of Congress in November, President Bush asked Webb about his son.

"I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President," Webb reportedly said.

"That's not what I asked you," Bush said. "How's your boy?"

"That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," Webb replied.

As for Thompson, he spent Monday night in a District of Columbia lock-up and was freed without bail after appearing at a Superior Court hearing, where he was charged with one felony count of carrying a pistol without a license. A court hearing was scheduled for May 1.

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joel.havemann@latimes.com

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