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Finding security amid insanity

For lawmakers and law enforcement that's the challenge following the Tucson shooting

Issue: "Babies are back," Jan. 29, 2011

In a telephone poll taken days after the Jan. 8 Arizona shooting, freshman Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., asked members of his district if the Arizona tragedy would make them less likely to attend future congressional events. Eighty percent said they'd still come, 11 percent said the shooting that killed six and wounded 13 would make them less likely to attend, and 9 percent were undecided.

That percentage of fear is enough to rush lawmakers to propose sweeping legislation to prohibit future gunmen from targeting politicians, as alleged killer Jared Lee Loughner did outside a Tucson Safeway during a "Congress on the Corner" event scheduled by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. Giffords was shot in the head but successfully underwent brain surgery following the shootings.

One proposed bill would prohibit people from carrying guns within 1,000 feet of members of Congress. Another would ban high-capacity ammunition magazines like the one used by Loughner. There is a proposal to enclose the House visitors gallery with plexiglas to protect lawmakers on the House floor, and one to change how congressional lawmakers are screened at airports. Several lawmakers vowed that they would begin carrying concealed weapons, though other members are likely to push for laws to prohibit that: "When one tragedy happens people in Congress go overboard and take away people's freedoms unnecessarily," said Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert.

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Rep. Trent Franks, a Republican from Giffords' Arizona, said threats to lawmakers were common before the shooting. In 2009 the U.S. Capitol Police provided security at 139 congressional events-almost a 100 percent increase from 2008. "I really believe that a free and open debate that is sometimes passionate can actually suppress violence rather then incite it," said Franks. "Societies that are not free often think violence is the only option they have."

Huizenga agreed, and said it's "not practical" to provide 24/7 security for 535 lawmakers. "The depravity of man is evident . . . we just can't rely on government fixes. We have to change people's hearts."

What was on the heart of Loughner quickly became a heated topic of debate. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik claimed in the aftermath of the shooting that vitriol on the part of right-wing talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh may have motivated Loughner. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a town hall meeting in Abu Dhabi, referred to the Tucson shooter as an "extremist."

But experts in the days following the shootings found no evidence linking his actions to political causes or pundits. More pertinent, they say, are insights from school shootings in the United States going back more than a decade, including the 1999 Columbine shooting that killed 12 students and a teacher and injured 21. Loughner better matches the rough sketch of a school shooter, as detailed in reports from the FBI, the Department of Education, and the Secret Service. That research may prove a more useful guide to law enforcement as they seek to protect members of Congress from deadly rampages.

Pima Community College suspended Loughner, 22, last year after seeing one of his disturbing videos online-something colleges are more apt to do after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter's violent language and mental illnesses went unheeded. The college told Loughner he could return when he underwent a mental health exam that showed he wasn't a danger to himself or others.

In almost three-quarters of cases, school shooters have planned a target in advance, seeking a specific individual, as Loughner allegedly did. Past shooters have held grudges against their targets, as Loughner did against Rep. Giffords because she dismissed a question he posed at a forum.

Paranoid ideas, delusional statements, depression, vague threats of violence, and increasing isolation are other things peers noticed in past shooters. "Does anyone have aggression 24/7?" asked Loughner on an online gaming forum last year, posts obtained by The Wall Street Journal.

The challenge for law enforcement is discovering which isolated, angry young males are about to take action. "If we had asked a couple teachers and students, you would have gotten a very clear picture of a guy who was ready to snap" in Loughner, said John Guandolo, a former FBI agent who served as the FBI's liaison to the Capitol Police, working to protect lawmakers from threats. But it's hard to judge how aggressive to be in pursuing young suspects, he said.

"From a law enforcement perspective, those are very tough cases that no one takes seriously until someone is killed," he said. "Then everyone asks the question, 'Where were you?' We were investigating the other 400 threats."

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