Federal leaders from our region talk safety after shooting of congressman

Published: Jun. 14, 2017 at 7:20 PM EDT
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ALEXANDRIA, Va. (WSAZ) -- Members of Congress are coming together Wednesday in the wake of the shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, to reflect on the attack and talk about safety going forward.

A gunman opened fire at a practice for a congressional charity baseball game, shooting House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, the third-highest ranked GOP member in the House. Scalise was shot in the hip and taken to a Washington, D.C. hospital where he is in critical condition, but described as stable.

Three other people were wounded in the attack at the baseball field, including a Capitol Police officer, a congressional staffer and a lobbyist. None are believed to have life-threatening injuries.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, witnessed the attack firsthand.

He recalled to NBC News being outside the perimeter of the baseball field when he heard the first shot ring out. Paul then saw Scalise injured on the ground, dragging himself through the dirt to the outfield.

Shock turned to chaos and Paul said, for several minutes, it was hard to tell where the gunshots were coming from. In all, he said he heard 50 to 60 shots fired.

"I'm seeing a blur of a blue shirt," Paul said. "I couldn't have identified him from where I was, but the shots were landing next to us and we knew that he could shoot a long way from where he was and so as we felt like he was changing his position, it's sort of like well, who's gonna bring him down? And at that point we started hearing the Capitol Hill Police return fire and I truly believe if the Capitol Hill Police had not been there, most people would have been killed."

Paul said Scalis had a security detail as a high-ranking congressional member. He told NBC News he felt lucky, saying Capitol Hill Police prevented a "massacre."

"Capitol Police were there and the only reason they were there is we had a member of leadership on our team," Paul said. "If Scalise wouldn't have been on the team -- unfortunately he was hit and I hope he does well -- but also by him being there, he probably saved everybody else's lives because if you don't have a leadership person there, there would have been no security there."

James Hodgskinson, 66, of Illinois, is believed to be the shooter, according to NBC News. President Trump confirmed in a press conference that Hodgskinson died from his injuries after being shot by police.

As the investigation into the shooting continues,U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, a West Virginia Republican, said there is an "eerie sense of quiet" at the Capitol Wednesday.

"The spirit today at the Capitol has been one of unity," Jenkins said.

Jenkins says Wednesday morning there was a joint briefing for Democrats and Republicans on the House floor. He says safety and security of those who work on Capitol Hill was discussed, but before the briefing began, he says members of Congress joined hands and prayed for the victims, showing bipartisan support.

"Much of the discussion during that briefing was about unity, about the tone and the importance of us to come together to recognize that what is said, how things are said, and what is happening in the political dialogue and discourse in this country," said Jenkins of people using political disagreements to cross the line into violence. "We also must understand we're all Americans. It is America first and that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us."

Being a public official comes with the risks associated with the spotlight, Jenkins says, but he imagines members of Congress will now be even more aware of their surroundings at work events or even just in their personal lives.

He told reporters that only a handful of congressional leaders, the higher ups, have security details. Others, including himself, do not. As for safety at his offices, Jenkins said some offices are inside federal buildings with extra security. Others are not.

The details of future security changes at the Capitol remain unclear, but Jenkins said there is a visible difference following the shooting.

"Capitol Police have said they will, at least for the immediate future -- how long it lasts, that will be a decision that they make -- enhanced security measures as we see in many respects after an event, the heightened security," Jenkins said.

When a reporter asked Jenkins if the shooting will reignite the debate over gun control, the congressman said this is not the time to "try to score political points" and talk about that topic.

"This gunman came to kill," said Jenkins, who said Capitol Police should be commended for their quick response.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, told WSAZ that Scalise is a good friend of hers and she was frightened by the shooting.

"It's a scary thing and it's a horrible, horrible event at a very innocuous kind of event, a baseball practice," Capito said. "I've been out there. I used to practice with them and see the team, so it's usually a fun event and it's just been massacred and it's really, really sad."

Capito said there is justified cause for concern, but she doesn't believe this event will change how she views her personal safety on a day-to-day basis.

"I think that we all are thinking today about certain instances and certainly the best way to keep safe," Capito said. "I don't want to have to be looking over my shoulder all the time 'cause I don't now. I really don't concern myself with my own personal safety except in maybe one or two situations where I might have felt a bit of unease, but I think I gotta be smart about it too."

The senator didn't go into detail about her protection, but said she and other members of Congress will be reviewing security protocol.

"I'm sure we'll be having conversations with the Capitol Police, particularly when we're gathered in a group of say, more than two or three of us together," Capito said. "I think that presents really big challenges on our safety. I don't want to end that access -- that open feeling that I have with constituents and I hope they have with me, but at the same time you got to be smart about it so we'll be reviewing our safety protocols and I'll stay as safe as I can."

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said one of his first thoughts after hearing the news of the attack was about how "professional and courageous" the Capitol Police are.

"The Capitol Police performed as we knew they would, as professionals, as courageous men and women and probably saved lives today because of the work they did," Brown said.

Brown told WSAZ he was instructed to not talk about security measures.

"I feel safe," Brown said. "I feel protected."

He talked about wanting to remain accessible to the public

"I wanna hear from people," Brown said. "I know the Capitol Police are really good. I know they will take more security measures. What I hope they don't do is close off the Capitol. I don't want us to barricade ourselves in the Capitol and keep the public out. That's not what our country is, and I don't want to be in an elected office if it means not ever being out and talking to people and putting ourselves out there."

The target of the attack, the practice for a congressional charity baseball game, hit home for Brown who says he played on the congressional baseball team for several years. He called it "good, bi-partisan fun" and "a bunch of middle-aged, mostly men, getting injuries because we're all competitive and we try too hard."

He recalls all of the morning practices he went to and chasing fly balls in centerfield.

"You don't expect shots to be fired while you're doing that, so I'm sure the trauma was really something. There's still too many people in this society that get shot, that die from gunfire and it's pretty tragic," Brown said.

Several other congressional leaders spoke Wednesday and/or released statements on the shooting.

U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

"I know the entire Senate will join me in echoing the sentiments of the president this morning. We are deeply saddened. We are concerned for all those injured. We will keep them in our prayers, we will continue to send them every wish for a quick and full recovery ...

"We are grateful for all those who stepped in to help: those practicing on the field, the first responders, and of course the Capitol Police Officers on the scene. We are deeply indebted for their service, we again salute their continuing and unfailing bravery on behalf of the Capitol community. The Congressional Baseball Game is a bipartisan charity event. I know the Senate will embrace that spirit today as we come together in expressing both our concern and our gratitude."

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.:

"Gayle and I are sending our thoughts and prayers to Congressman Scalise, aides and Capitol Police officers who were injured today and their families. It's unimaginable that someone would target my colleagues as they were practicing for a charitable baseball game that creates bipartisanship and comradery. We must also never take our Capitol Police for granted. They put their lives on the line every day to protect us and we must always remember to thank them for their service and sacrifice in the line of duty. We wish everyone injured a speedy recovery."

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-W.Va.:

"I was sickened to hear news of the shooting this morning at the Republican practice for the Congressional Baseball game. My thoughts and prayers are with Congressman Steve Scalise and the Capitol Police Officers and congressional staffer who were injured by this morning's senseless act of violence. I'm especially grateful to the U.S. Capitol Police and Alexandria Virginia Police Department who by all accounts acted as heroes and prevented this incident from turning even worse. Today's incident was appalling to all who believe in our democratic values. I wish all those impacted a speedy recovery," said Congressman Ryan in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, released the following tweets as his statement according to his staff:

"Jane & I send our thoughts & prayers to @SteveScalise, the @CapitolPolice & all those affected this morning."

"The @CapitolPolice put their lives on the line every day to protect the public & members of Congress. They are true heroes."