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Following Virginia Shooting, Lawmakers Feel Even More Under Threat

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today's shooting has shocked lawmakers and started a broader conversation about security protections for members of Congress and whether anything needs to change. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is in the Capitol and joins us now. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What have the lawmakers you've spoken to today told you?

DAVIS: You know lawmakers are really shaken by this. Every lawmaker I talked to today in the hallways actually broke down and cried when talking about the shooting this morning. It's important to remember that most members of Congress don't have security. They go about their everyday lives like you and I do. And the only reason why this was cut short today is one of those members of the baseball team, Steve Scalise, was there, and he had a personal security detail, two - the two law enforcement officers that were there.

You know, a lot of the politicians I talked to today on the Hill brought up the political climate and the way things have felt in recent months. I talked to one Pennsylvania Republican, Ryan Costello, who said he feels like the first months of this year are the worst he's ever seen in his time in Congress. And this is what he had to say.

RYAN COSTELLO: And in our political culture, people don't give elected officials the benefit of the doubt. They certainly don't give members of Congress the benefit of the doubt. They probably think a lot of things about me that are totally false just by the title that I have. They probably assume the worst in me if I vote different than how they would want. The people down here, members of Congress, are just trying to make the country better.

SHAPIRO: There was a security briefing this morning for lawmakers. Sue, what came out of that meeting?

DAVIS: You know, security threats to lawmakers are not new. They happen pretty regularly and are handled by the Capitol Police and the sergeant at arms. You know, those institutions already conduct security reviews for lawmakers. They do it for their district offices, for their homes and on an as-needed basis if lawmakers feel that there's threats coming their way.

At today's meeting, there was a discussion, and this started discussion of maybe changing some of those protocols. One of the ideas being talked about is letting members use their office budgets to spend some of that money to beef up security back home.

There's also talk about maybe changing the way they do security protocols when large groups of lawmakers are in one place like they were today at that public baseball field. You know, the general advice that came from the sergeant at arms and the Capitol Police is the same as they give to everybody else. If lawmakers see something, they should say something and that they should not hesitate to contact law enforcement if they feel that they are in any way threatened.

SHAPIRO: Do you think this shooting is likely to change the way lawmakers interact with the public?

DAVIS: Yes and no. You know, I think - the lawmakers I talked to say - some of them say, yeah, you know, I need to reflect and review my security protocols when I go out and do the people's business, particularly mindfulness about events like town halls that are often raucous and see a lot of back and forth between lawmakers and the public.

But overwhelmingly, members say, no, I just - I'm going to keep doing my job. I talked to Martha McSally. She's an Arizona Republican. She represents the district that was held by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who is also the victim of a shooting attack. And McSally is a lawmaker who is one of those members who was the target of threats earlier this year. And this is what she had to say.

MARTHA MCSALLY: So I'm going to continue to be accessible. I'm going to continue to engage. I think another question is, are you going to stop doing some things because maybe of, you know, the threats? And that - and the answer is no, I'm not. Like, I've put my life on the line in combat. I'm not going to take unnecessary risks. Don't get me wrong. But I am not going to let fear be a motivating factor to stop me from doing my job.

SHAPIRO: Sue, these shootings often restart debates about gun control. What are lawmakers saying about that?

DAVIS: It has restarted that debate again. Lawmakers are being asked that question. Does this change anything about the gun debate? The short answer is no. It doesn't change the reality that the two parties are just deeply divided when it comes to guns. You know, I covered the shooting of former Rep. Gabby Giffords. I covered the aftermath on Capitol Hill after the Newtown shooting where there was talk but ultimately no action to change gun laws. That seems most likely here as well.

Democrats feel passionately that new gun laws could help avoid incidents like what happened today, but Republicans feel just as passionately that curbing Second Amendment rights will only affect law-abiding citizens. So the bottom line is, right now, there's simply not a majority of support in Congress for legislation to in any way restrict gun rights.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Susan Davis, thanks a lot.

DAVIS: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.