WASHINGTON—Surprise quickly morphed into alarm for some at the Capitol this week as a post-Jan. 6 security measure vanished without warning just before Republicans reclaimed control of the House. Some Democrats fear there could be a mass shooting on the House floor at the trigger of one of the GOP’s newly expanded ranks of conspiracy-believing lawmakers.
“A lot of my Republican colleagues glorify violence and proudly display the firearms they have in their offices, so it just makes me nervous that we could have a workplace violent event. They’re not the most stable people,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) told Raw Story after voting for Speaker this week.
The airport-esque contraptions—technically, magnetometers—surrounded the House chamber since the mob of Trump supporters violently attempted to take over the historic chamber on Jan. 6, 2021. In their two-year stint as beeping plastic monuments to a failed coup, they were cursed, mocked, and even sued by lawmakers.
They also stopped at least one gun from entering the House chamber. Soon after the extra security went up, Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) set the metal detectors off before ditching the weapon, though likely others did too, as many Republicans initially refused to comply.
\u201cJust watched about 10 Republicans walk around the magnetometer.\n\nDidn\u2019t see them all, but among the group was Ralph Northham and Scott Perry.\n\nJeff Duncan bypassed the metal detector right before them.\u201d— Matt Fuller (@Matt Fuller) 1610499125
It’s a bipartisan problem, but the fear is one-sided. It’s palpable. Yet Democrats aren’t scared (publicly, at least). Alert.
We all know Democrats can’t even agree on the definition of ‘monolithic.’ But after being some of the main targets of that violent mob just two years ago—and one tangible, terrifying memory—an unmistakable realism now pervades the party. Awoke. Focused.
It’s the opposite on the right. Dismissing, deflecting, or denying all things Jan. 6 has become en vogue in today’s GOP (at least to those who’ve avoided being labeled ‘Never Trump’ before being retired).
Democrats can’t not think about it. Especially the handful of their GOP colleagues many suspect to know are seditious felons.
WATCH: Jan. 6 committee shows new footage of Capitol attack youtu.be
“They already have a history of letting insurrectionists in the building and showing them around,” Swalwell—who made public some of the vile death threats his family has endured—said. “So it just seems like a recipe for disaster.”
Metal detectors or not, the nation’s politicians—right, left, and indie—are now bigger targets than ever before.
The 117th Congress was the most threatened in history
Death threats are the new norm on Capitol Hill.
Just in 2022, lawmakers across Capitol Hill reported receiving more than 9,000 threats. All told, in the past six years, members of Congress have faced a 400 percent increase in personal threats, according to Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger.
The rhetoric has become reality in a series of tragic, politically motivated mass shootings, including when a deranged progressive shot up a Republican baseball practice or a conspiracy-fueled Trump devotee attacked an FBI field office in Ohio, to name two of many.
Most Republicans maintain they’re not alarmed—concerned, yes, but they often rebuff questions on gun violence. Guns have become a part of the party’s DNA.
It’s different with Democrats. They still feel—or admit to the unforgettable feelings—the real world sting of memes, tropes, and misinformation that was literally being weaponized. And after you see an American flag weaponized in the heart of American democracy, then you surely know a gun on the Capitol grounds is weaponized the second the trigger is purposely pulled inside an already contentious office.
“There have been increased threats to members of Congress. There's been an increase in political violence in this country, and I think we have a responsibility to make sure that when people come to work—this is a workplace—that they could do so safely and free from any fear of violence, particularly gun violence,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) told Raw Story this week. “I think it should concern everyone.”
In this pitched political atmosphere, Democrats don’t like what they’ve heard about Trump’s new block of political allies on Capitol Hill.
“There's a frightening group of people over there,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) told Raw Story of the growing ranks of conspiracy theorists who don’t just deny Biden's legitimacy, they flirt with or peddle dangerous QAnon tropes. “I used to assume that nothing crazy could happen here. I no longer assume that. After Jan. 6, I don’t assume anything anymore. So it’s a little concerning.”
Throughout this week, GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy and many of his rank-and-file members have grown increasingly frustrated with a block of Freedom Caucus members who’ve stymied House proceedings by repeatedly blocking McCarthy’s Speaker bid. Kildee says this is an ominous start to the 118th Congress.
“Scary people,” Kildee continued, “and the real problem too is that they seem to have taken the keys to the car from the party.”
Is the Supreme Court culpable?
The nation’s capital had one of the strictest firearm bans in the nation, but the Roberts Court put an end to that in 2008 with its Heller decision. Its sweeping ruling overturned Washington’s strict handgun ban while also eviscerating the local mandate that shotguns be stored with a safety lock or needed to be emptied and disassembled.
Prior to Heller, many of the nation’s lawmakers disregarded local D.C. gun laws and secretly packed heat while in town. Hell, in 2007 former Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA)—a former Navy Secretary—got one of his senior aides arrested after Capitol Police found the senator’s loaded pistol in the staffer’s bag. The main infractions weren’t for the weapon itself, but rather for the fact the senator left it loaded and that the aide—a former Marine, no less—wasn’t licensed.
That’s because in 1967 the Capitol Police board ruled that members of Congress and their aides could legally have firearms on the Capitol grounds, though they had to be empty and securely stored. The regulation focused on members' personal offices, and it strictly prohibited members from bringing weapons on the floor of the House or Senate.
\u201cLet me tell you why I WILL carry my Glock to Congress. \n\nGovernment does NOT get to tell me or my constituents how we are allowed to keep our families safe.\n\nI promise to always stand strong for our 2nd Amendment rights.\n\nhttps://t.co/E75tYpdN4B\u201d— Lauren Boebert (@Lauren Boebert) 1609720406
Needless to say, even before the Obama presidency—when the number of American firearms outpaced the number of living, breathing American citizens for the first time—lawmakers flouted the rules and packed while in D.C. That’s why many Democrats welcomed the inconvenience of metal detectors.
“I do feel better walking through them. It's annoying, but I definitely feel more confident,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) told me after leaving a Democratic caucus meeting this week.
“Knowing that the metal detectors aren't there and that there are gonna be guns on the floor,” I ask, “does that worry you?”
“Okay, you just created a new sense of anxiety,” Schakowsky replied as we both awkwardly laughed. “Thank you very much!”
“But that does worry you?” I followed up with. “Because if they get mad in the heat of debate, you don’t want firearms on the floor?”
“That is a concern, and I think that it’s not a wise decision given the tensions that we have right now, which are at a real high pitch,” Schakowsky replied.
It's more than just fear though. It’s also compassion.
“We have members who have been either witnesses of or even victims of gun violence,” Schakowsky said. “We’re not happy about it. Thanks for the bad news!”
There’s no Speaker, so who made the call?
Many Democrats are also asking: Where did the order to remove the magnetometers come from? Because there’s currently no Speaker of the House.
“I was surprised, because I don’t know who gave the order” Rep. Kildee of Michigan said. “I assume that the incoming majority communicated with the clerk, but I only assume that. So I don't know.”
GOP Leader McCarthy’s office hasn’t responded to multiple requests for a comment.
No matter who gave the order, the speed with which the extra layer of security evaporated also caught many lawmakers off guard.
“The security folks were laughing at me because I took all the stuff out of my pockets and I put it on the table and then looked up and there was no detector to go through,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) recounted to Raw Story while on an elevator in the Capitol. “They said, ‘You’re the second one who’s done that.’”
While Democrats are now up to speed on the security change, many remain nervous about what the future may hold.
“I hope it’s safe. I think we all have some concerns about it,” Schiff said.
Democrats have been raising these alarm bells for some time now, even as Republican leaders have supported their own members, including those accused of threatening their fellow lawmakers with violence.
The congressional session that just ended this week was the first since the Jan. 6 attack. In the wake of the unprecedented assault on the heart of America’s government—the people’s branch—the rhetoric inside the Capitol’s recently-bloodied marble halls only grew more pitched and personal.
In a rare move, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) was censured and kicked off his committees for posting an anime video depicting cartoon-him beheading Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). A mere two Republicans—Jan. 6 committee members and now former-Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger—crossed the aisle. Another Republican voted "present."
\u201cThis is sick behavior from Rep. Paul Gosar. He tweeted out the video showing him killing Rep. Ocasio-Cortez from both his official account and personal account. In any workplace in America, if a coworker made an anime video killing another coworker, that person would be fired.\u201d— Ted Lieu (@Ted Lieu) 1636417239
Democrats also stripped committees away from then-freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) after some of her posts were uncovered that, as CNN put it, that “indicated support for executing prominent Democrats in 2018 and 2019 before running for Congress.” It too was hyper-partisan. Only 11 Republicans voted with Democrats.
The list goes on. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) accused Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and her meme-ified lexicon—“Jihad Squad,” to name one—of making her the focus of sadistic threats. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) predicted “bloodshed.”
Republicans have also felt the right’s rage for crossing former President Trump in recent years. After joining a mere eight freshman Republicans in certifying Biden’s 2020 victory, then-Rep. Peter Meijer braced for violence from Trump loyalists.
“We realize that was a vote we cast that put our safety at risk, and going forward, I am expecting there will likely be more political violence,” Meijer told CNBC’s Shepard Smith before he lost his 2022 Michigan primary to a Trump-backed candidate who lost the seat for the GOP in the general election.
\u201cThreats of violence over politics has increased heavily in the last few years. But the darkness has reached new lows. My new interns made this compilation of recent calls they\u2019ve received while serving in my DC office.\n\nWARNING: this video contains foul & graphic language.\u201d— Adam Kinzinger (@Adam Kinzinger) 1657031303
That’s the backdrop. and also the reason many Democrats don’t dwell on the fact that some of their Republican colleagues carry weapons in the Capitol.
“I try not to think about it,” Schiff said. “Let's just hope we don’t have a tragedy on our hands.”
Some Democrats say, ‘good riddance!’
The metal detectors were little comfort to other Democrats though.
Unlike other members of her party, Rep. Abigail Spanberger is used to being armed. In her past life as a Postal Inspector, the moderate Democrat worked drug and money-laundering cases. She then hopped federal agencies and spent a decade serving as CIA operations officer where she…well, it’s still, basically, CLASSIFIED (or, at least, redacted to the point of mystery).
Now a Virginia congresswoman, Spanberger was one of a few dozen lawmakers left trapped in the galleries overlooking the House floor on Jan. 6, 2021 due to COVID social-distancing measures. Even while she still carries emotional scars from that day, the congresswoman hated the detectors from the beginning.
“[They] slowed down votes. Frankly, put the Capitol Police in a bit of a challenging circumstance of: we’re going to vote and they’re opening up bags,” Spanberger joyously complained after they were removed earlier this week.
\u201cWe cannot and should not \u201cmove on\u201d from the events of January 6, as has been suggested in recent days by several of my colleagues.\n\nThese colleagues fail to recognize the severity of what occurred on that day and what has occurred in the year since. 5/9\u201d— Rep. Abigail Spanberger (@Rep. Abigail Spanberger) 1641478642
The former CIA officer does note that the attack on the Capitol revealed the myth behind Republicans' Second Amendment talking points.
“As somebody who used to carry a firearm every single day—and trained; had to qualify—what we saw on Jan. 6 is that, when circumstances got challenging, the people who would otherwise kinda like to pretend that they would play a central role evacuated themselves right out,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) told Raw Story just outside the House chamber, “Thanks to Capitol Police—and later in the day Metropolitan Police—we were protected at great expense to so many Capitol Police officers who were beaten and bloodied…”
It’s not just badass congresswomen. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) has spent the last 20 years in Congress, including serving on the committee that funds the Department of Homeland Security. To him, the metal detectors were more than annoying—they were unnecessary in a building protected by a small army.
“We have enough cops. We have security,” Ruppersberger told Raw Story in the Capitol’s dingy basement.
The Baltimore-trained prosecutor has witnessed a lot over the decades, especially in his time studying domestic terrorism threats from his perch on the Appropriations Committee. Sadly, if realistically, Ruppersberger says the House floor is no different from any other American workplace, school, place of worship, night club, festival, or home—they’re all at risk of a uniquely American mass shooting.
“It can happen anywhere. It could happen in our caucus room, it could happen in the cafeteria,” Ruppersberger continued. “I have confidence in our safety. When you have a riot, like on Jan. 6, that’s a different story, and we were able to repel that.”
Jan. 6 changed everything
The removal of the metal detectors comes the same week as the second anniversary of the brutal attack on the Capitol, which also happened to be the last week of the special Jan. 6 committee’s mandate to investigate the insurrection.
The wounds from that historic assault on American democracy still haven’t healed—even as the permanent scars are now ever-present to many of the victims, including the heroic officers who defended the Capitol that dark day, and many of the lawmakers who are still coming to grips with the enormity of the failed coup.
“Jan. 6 has changed everything for us in terms of what we expect, what we feel like we have to be prepared for,” Rep. Primila Jayapal (D-WA) told Raw Story as she headed to a meeting with her party’s new minority leaders.
“Some of these newer members—who I don’t know well,” I ask the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, “but knowing some live in a ‘QAnon reality’ and that they might be strapped, that’s scary?”
“It is,” Jayapal replied. “Yeah.”
“But this is the new reality?”
“This is the new reality,” Jayapal said. “Unfortunately.”