Thursday, April 24, 2014
WASHINGTON – News of a mass shooting just a mile and a half away was certainly on most people’s minds – and on many office television screens – all day on Monday on Capitol Hill.
Yet official Washington’s response to the city’s deadliest event in 30 years was far less consistent, as evidenced by half of the Capitol building going on “lockdown” while the other half didn’t.
There was a highly visible increase in security outside of the Capitol Monday morning – with more officers carrying high-powered weapons spaced throughout the grounds – as the scale of the events at the Navy Yard became clear. An armored police truck was also eventually parked outside of the Capitol.
But inside the Capitol past the always-tight security checkpoints, it was largely business as usual: staffers walked the hallways as crowds of tourists pulsed through the historic halls.
As the day went on, however, the House and the Senate demonstrated that they operate independently of one another procedurally as well as politically.
The Senate had canceled floor activities on Monday in response to the shootings; the House had not been slated to return until Tuesday.
Just after 3 p.m., as police continued to search for a second potential shooter, the Senate’s Sergeant-at-Arms issued a “shelter in place” memo for the Senate half of the Capitol as well as all external Senate office buildings.
“This will be in effect until we deem the situation safe in the neighboring community,” said the message from Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer. “We do not have any information to suggest the Senate, its members or staff are in danger, but out of an abundance of caution, we feel this is the best course of action to keep everyone safe.”
But the “shelter in place” order didn’t apply to the House side of the Capitol – easily accessible from the Senate via numerous hallways – or to House offices. That meant staff members in the offices of Maine’s two senators were required to stay inside while Maine staffers on the House side – which is several large city blocks closer to the shooting scene – could come and go as they pleased.
Additionally, tourists were still being admitted through security at the Capitol Visitors Center and led on tours of the Capitol building. The disparity led to some confusion among staffers, journalists and some security personnel.
The Senate’s “shelter in place” order was partially lifted a little more than an hour later, thereby allowing those on the Senate said to leave -- if they hadn't already done so via the House exits.
Of course, the discrepancies weren't restricted to under the dome.
On Monday evening, the restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating not far from the Capitol appeared to be enjoying relatively healthy business (although perhaps not as healthy for such a temperate, mid-September night). Meanwhile, about 15 blocks or a 20-minute walk away, more than 1,000 Navy Yard employees were still holed up inside the complex while many neighborhood residents were waiting for police to lift the "shelter in place" order (not lifted until after 10 p.m.)
Several Washington churches, including the National Cathedral, also opened their doors to the public Monday evening or held special services.
Lawmakers will be back on The Hill on Tuesday, and both the House and Senate are expected to pause to remember the shooting victims. In the longer term, the incident is likely to rekindle debate over gun control – an issue that had subsided in recent months – and to spark more discussion about security vetting of defense contractors.Tweet
Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
Kevin can be reached at 317-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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