Capitol security worked, legislators, police say They say gunman evaded checkpoint for tourists

Shooting In The Capitol

July 25, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON SUN STAFF WRITER ELLEN GAMERMAN CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- Kate Chabala of Mansfield, Pa., was stunned as she stood outside the Capitol, minutes after a gunbattle had erupted inside.

"How can a thing like this happen here?" asked the 42-year-old teacher. "The times we visited we always felt secure. It really gives you pause."

She may never want to return to the Capitol, Chabala said. "Maybe next time we'll stick to the museums instead of anything that has to do with politics."

In the wake of the fatal shooting at the U.S. Capitol building, many were asking the same questions: How could this happen? Isn't there adequate security?

In fact, all entrances at the Capitol are equipped with metal detectors, X-ray equipment and at least one armed police officer. Officers also patrol the hallways and are stationed on the second floor, where tourists enter the visitors' galleries to watch debate on the House and Senate floors.

Authorities noted that the security apparatus worked yesterday. But they said the gunman, whom they identified as Russell E. Weston Jr., evaded the checkpoint as he entered a tourist entrance on the east front of the Capitol, and then walked around the metal detector and suddenly started firing his handgun, hitting one guard.

They said he ran about 10 feet, went through a doorway to leadership offices and exchanged gunfire with another officer outside the office of Republican Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas.

"Security was not compromised," Sgt. Dan Nichols, a spokesman for the Capitol police, insisted shortly afterward.

The officers reacted as they had been trained to, he said.

"This was not the fault of security," said Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee, which is responsible for the 1,255-member police force. "It was an individual who was intent on blasting his way into the Capitol."

Thomas praised the two men who died as heroes who gave their lives to save others, and choked back tears as he described how one officer, John Gibson, told staffers to stay inside an office as Gibson confronted the gunman.

Officials will assess the security, Thomas said. But he maintained that, although the gunman got past the checkpoint, that security had not failed. "I think the worst thing we could do is cower in fear and shut down the people's Capitol," Thomas said. "We will not shut down the Capitol."

Other lawmakers offered similar comments, noting the tight security, including the guardhouse and automatic barriers that prevent unauthorized cars from driving up to the building.

"I don't think there's a lot more they can do," said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting Democratic delegate in Congress. "You can't design security around a madman. What are you going to do -- close down Independence Avenue?" she asked, referring to the road that runs along one side of the Capitol.

"The Capitol is very, very secure," said Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat. To try to penetrate the building, "you have to be out of your mind, demented."

Past violence at the Capitol served to strengthen security. After a bomb exploded in the Capitol building near the Senate cloakroom in 1983, metal detectors were installed and identification tags were required for reporters, staffers and lobbyists.

Pub Date: 7/25/98

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