Press wait near the office of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the Longworth… (Brendan Smialowski, Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — For all the popular complaints about politicians existing in the walled-off world of Washington, the nation's members of Congress are in many ways among the most publicly exposed faces in the country.
Lawmakers routinely make themselves available at public events, like the Congress on the Corner where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot on Saturday. Often there is little more than a folding table or an aide between the elected official and the public, making a violent act remarkably easy to plot.
In both the capital and in their home states, elected officials host town hall events, walk the aisles of grocery stores, have dinner out — all without the barrier of security, leaving them vulnerable in this era of hyperpartisan politics.
The potential dangers of this openness became particularly clear during the often heated debate over President Obama's healthcare bill, as some protesters arrived with guns and one lawmaker's likeness was hung in effigy.
A shot was fired last summer through a window at the office of Democratic Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, whose Arizona district borders that of Giffords. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) received a threatening voice mail message in March suggesting she wouldn't "live to see her next term," according to a news release at the time.
In the hours after the healthcare vote, the glass door of Giffords' district office was smashed. In an interview about the incident, she was asked whether she was scared.
"You know, I'm not," she told MSNBC.
"Our democracy is a light, a beacon really, around the world because we effect change at the ballot box and not because of these outbursts of violence in certain cases," she added.
Giffords did note, though, that her seat was targeted by Sarah Palin, who identified the 8th Congressional District with crosshairs on a map heading into the fall election. Giffords urged a dialing-down of the debate.
There appears to be little connection between the number of threats made on lawmakers and Congress' approval rating, according to a review of FBI records conducted last year by Politico. The peak number of FBI-investigated threats came in 2001. Congressional approval ratings were in the teens in 2010, far lower than they were in 2001.
The office of the sergeant at arms of the Senate said that Saturday the number of cases of significant threats against senators rose to 49 in 2010, up from 29 the previous year.
Only the top two members of each party, in each chamber, have full-time security detail from the U.S. Capitol Police, as does the president pro tempore of the Senate. Capitol Hill police on Saturday urged members and staff to "take reasonable and prudent precautions regarding their personal safety and security."
Across Capitol Hill, a vast majority of lawmakers and their aides have examples of threats that have made them uneasy — some so menacing that they have requested security intervention.
One aide said it became increasingly difficult to convince grocery stores and other public outlets to allow Congress on the Corner events on Saturdays during the healthcare battle as the incendiary rhetoric intensified.
Another aide said Saturday's shooting was certain to cast concern over future events. "I'm sure it's going to make members nervous," the aide said.
Because lawmakers are reluctant to be seen as shutting out the public they have come to Washington to serve, they are hesitant to hire security, post metal detectors or convene closed meetings — as some representatives did to great criticism during the healthcare battle.
Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) recalls reluctantly hiring a security guard to join her as she made the rounds at a veterans' holiday event a few years back in Las Vegas after receiving threatening messages.
"There simply cannot be barrier between the members of Congress and the people they represent," Berkley said.
"I'm in the people's house. I am the closest thing my constituents have to the federal government," she said. "If I'm giving a speech or I'm walking around Costco, people need to know they can approach me and talk to me. I don't know how you change that and not change the nature of our government."