Minn. delegation reconsiders safety after Giffords shootingby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Some members of Minnesota's congressional delegation are assessing their safety procedures after the Arizona shooting spree that killed six and critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Giffords was shot Saturday while greeting constituents in a supermarket parking lot. It was the kind of public appearance that Minnesota's congressional delegates make frequently throughout the year -- without any security detail. But they say limiting their contact with constituents is not an option.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., receives plenty of visits from constituents and activists in her district office. It's tucked under a coffee shop, just a few blocks from her home in St. Paul.
But unlike her office building in Washington, there are no metal detectors or armed guards at the entrance.
Instead, a gold-framed mirror hangs behind the receptionist's desk. That's not a design touch. McCollum said the mirror is intended to placate the most agitated visitors.
"If you can get them to look into the mirror, sometimes they'll calm themselves," McCollum said. "There are lots of little hints that we've been given by law enforcement and people who work on this issue."
Other security features include panic buttons and glass doors.
The DFL lawmaker said she didn't sleep well the night of the shootings in Tuscon. One of the people killed was a 9-year-old girl who wanted to meet her congresswoman.
"I'm going to be out in public and continue to do town halls and forums," she said. "But you know, my fear is that constituents won't feel as welcome to drop in, and participate, and our democracy will suffer for that."
McCollum said Capitol security agencies plan to review safety policies in the wake of the shootings and will hold briefings with Congressional district offices in the coming weeks on how to move forward.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said his office talked to members of Congress from Hennepin County over the weekend to discuss security, following Saturday's shooting in Arizona.
"Rest assured federal law enforcement, state and local look into those individual threats, see what they amount to, what is the motivation behind it, what's the means for doing some harm and then evaluate it from there," Stanek said. "A lot of times we discuss it with Congress or those individual elected officials."
Stanek said his office supplies increased security to elected officials if they request it at local events. He said it's fairly common for members of Congress and other elected officials when they have public events where they're expecting a large crowd or gathering of constituents to contact local law enforcement and ask that they provide site security.
"We're happy to do that; our job is to keep the public safe," Stanek said.
No member of the Minnesota delegation has a security detail. Many say they take common-sense approaches to helping protect themselves and their staff. They inform local law enforcement in advance of public appearances, and also make sure to turn over threatening voice mails and messages.
Yet hate mail has become almost mundane, said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. He said he receives it every day.
"We've gotten so immune to it, and it doesn't really rank in terms of priority because it's just so ordinary, so regular," Ellison said. "But we should never let it become ordinary. We should take these things seriously."
After the passage of last year's health care legislation, Ellison was one of four Minnesota delegates who received a threatening letter, along with the shreds of an American flag covered in gasoline and feces.
Ellison said the Arizona shootings have convinced him not to dismiss hateful messages.
And he joins a chorus of politicians and pundits who are responding to the Arizona attacks, saying it's time to dial back some of the anger in American politics.
Much has been made over the map created by Sarah Palin's campaign, which placed the image of a gun's crosshairs on Giffords' congressional district.
Ellison notes that back in early 2009, his colleague, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., called for Minnesotans to be "armed and dangerous" in response to President Barack Obama's energy plans.
Ellison said that kind of gun imagery doesn't belong in the political discourse.
"The political rhetoric has grown increasingly toxic, and making allusions (to) guns and reloading, and armed and dangerous, certainly contributes to a toxic political environment, and does have consequences," Ellison said.
A spokeswoman for Bachmann said the congresswoman was not available for comment. Bachmann released a statement saying her tears are flowing for her Gabrielle Giffords, and that she is praying for her.
It's too early to say what motivated the gunman in Saturday's shooting. A Youtube video tied to the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, displayed the incoherent thoughts of a young man railing against government.
Five of the 10 Minnesota delegates, Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, and Reps. Erik Paulsen, Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison, reached by MPR News said they would not limit their appearances in the wake of the shootings.
"You basically have to make a decision: Are you going to spend your time representing the public with your head in the sand behind a door in Washington, or are you going to get out there with the people you represent?" Klobuchar said. "Most public servants know that they have to be out there, with the people they represent."
Along those lines, Ellison said he hopes to increase the number of his public appearances this year, starting Friday with a "Congress on Your Corner" event. He said it'll be in honor of Giffords.
In Minnesota, it's not just federal lawmakers who are at risk. A report by the Minnesota legislative auditor found that the state Capitol complex has significant security vulnerabilities.
(MPR reporter Dan Olson contributed to this report.)
- Morning Edition, 01/10/2011, 7:20 a.m.