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Congress | Lawmakers react to the Arizona tragedy by calling for new measures to ensure their safety

WASHINGTON-In a telephone poll taken days after Saturday's Tucson shooting, the office of freshmen Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga asked constituents from his Michigan district if the Arizona tragedy would make them less likely to attend future congressional events.

Eighty percent of respondents said they'd still come, 11 percent said the shooting that killed six and wounded 14 would make them less likely to attend, and 9 percent were undecided.

"The depravity of man is evident," said Huizenga, an evangelical Christian, about the event. "But we just can't rely on government fixes. We have to change people's hearts."

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Still, in typical Washington fashion, lawmakers from both parties are calling for hearings, new legislation, and more money in the aftermath of last Saturday's events that left one of their colleagues, Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, severely wounded.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, is planning legislation to prohibit people from carrying guns within 1,000 feet of members of Congress.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., is finalizing a bill to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines like the one used in the Arizona massacre by alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., is introducing legislation to enclose the House Gallery with protective glass to safeguard lawmakers on the House floor.

And Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., wants beefed up funding and changes in how congressional lawmakers are screened at airports. "We've had some incidents where TSA authorities think that Congress people should be treated like everybody else," Clyburn told Fox News Sunday. "Well, the fact of the matter is, we are held to a higher standard."

Clyburn also said he favors legislation to elevate threats against members of Congress to the same legal level as threats against the president and vice president.

"That is one of the things Congress is best at . . . overreacting," said Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, who himself has plans to push a bill allowing members of Congress to carry concealed weapons while they are in Washington. "When one tragedy happens people in Congress go overboard and take away people's freedoms unnecessarily."

Lawmakers do admit that they are all taking a closer look at their security measures. This Congress' large contingent of freshmen lawmakers have confessed that this has given them something new to focus on in the midst of the mad scramble to set up offices and hire staff. Still, representatives insist that interacting with the public is part of their job, and they warn against erecting too many barriers against that easy accessibility.

"We should not allow ourselves to be diminished as a nation by mindless, heartless murderers like Mr. Loughner," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who has advised his staff to make no changes to his future schedule. "Having direct access to our leaders is one of the fundamental dynamics of our freedom."

While top congressional leadership get assigned security details, the rank-and-file members of Congress do not.

"It's just not practical to have 24/7 security for all 535 members of Congress," Huizenga said.

But lawmakers like Franks admit that threats are common, especially during the recent intense healthcare debate. In 2009, the U.S. Capitol Police, charged with protecting Congress, provided security at 139 congressional events-almost a 100 percent increase from 2008.

That is why some lawmakers are now calling for private bodyguards at local appearances. Others plan on installing additional protections in their district offices including security cameras, high-tech entry systems, and panic buttons.

At House Speaker John Boehner's request, federal law enforcement agencies are undergoing an in-depth assessment on ways to enhance security for lawmakers while they are back home. The U.S. Capitol Police had a $328 million budget in 2010, and there will be a push to increase future budgets in light of the shooting.

But lawmakers admit that, after all the legislative saber-rattling is through, the most likely change will be better coordination with law enforcement officials in their districts. The quiet, reassuring presence of a uniformed officer, likely stationed near the door, will be a regular sight at nearly all congressional events rather then just the occasional gathering.

"We are not going to restrict our access, but we are going to have a zero-tolerance policy with people who act out or make threats," said Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas. "It is not just for my safety or my staff's safety, it is for the safety of the people in my district."

Neugebauer added that this uniform security presence at certain public events is usually provided to him for free by his local police and sheriff departments.


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