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Lawmakers reconsider their security

After one of their own is gunned down, members of Congress are weighing their safety against the need to meet openly with constituents.

January 09, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro and Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — In the aftermath of the shooting of one of their own, members of Congress have been forced into an uneasy reconsideration of how to freely interact at public events at a time when some constituents may want to do them harm.

Lawmakers vowed Sunday to carry on their publicly scheduled events this week, but acknowledged they would be reevaluating upcoming Congress on the Corner events like the one where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in the head during a gunman's rampage Saturday.

Many congressional offices said they would consider tightened security measures at their public gatherings, even as they struggled privately with how to strike a balance between their desire to meet openly in their communities and the need to protect themselves and others.

"The mood among members is very sober and solemn," said freshman Rep. Karen Bass (D- Los Angeles), from a weekend retreat with 90 new members in Williamsburg, Va.

"They've expressed fear for their families, their children. They have been prayerful," she said. "It gives all of us pause."

Lawmakers spoke passionately about their intent to preserve one of the signature elements of American political society — open access to elected officials — in an era when political rhetoric leaves many conversations bordering on the uncivil.

Another freshman legislator, Rep. Raul Labrador (R- Idaho), a young father of five, said on "Meet the Press" that his wife was particularly shaken by the shootings.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), who was provided a security detail by Kansas City police after being spat on during last year's healthcare debate, was rethinking security options for his monthly Coffee with Cleaver event in January.

And Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), who has held more than 70 Government in the Grocery events since he took office four years ago, was evaluating how to proceed with one planned for this month. Spokeswoman Leslie Oliver said the grocery stores also would probably want to weigh in.

Yet elected officials almost universally rejected any retreat from the public appearances they have scheduled for the days ahead.

"If I get to the point where I believe I need security or a police presence to do my job, then it's time to rethink," said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who was a young congressional aide in 1978 when her boss, Rep. Leo Ryan of California, was gunned down in Guyana while investigating the Jonestown cult led by Jim Jones. She plans to appear at an event Monday in her district.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who was a county supervisor in San Francisco when fellow supervisor Harvey Milk was gunned down in 1978, said: "I have seen firsthand the effects of assassination, and there is no place for this kind of violence in our political discourse. It must be universally condemned."

More than 800 members of the House, their spouses and staff joined an afternoon conference call Sunday during which federal law enforcement officials emphasized the importance of notifying local authorities before town hall events. They also urged lawmakers to make sure local law enforcement officials know their home addresses.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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