Open government must remain so People's house: Despite last week's killings, U.S. Capitol must still be accessible to public.

July 28, 1998

SECURITY at the U.S. Capitol no doubt will be tightened after Russell E. Weston Jr.'s murderous rampage last week. That's the natural reaction. Yet security worked as well as could be expected in a building where visitors move about freely -- as they should.

Capitol Hill police officers Jacob J. Chestnut and John Gibson lost their lives while protecting members of Congress, staff and visitors from a man determined to inflict harm. Having them lie in state today in the Capitol Rotunda -- a high honor -- is entirely appropriate.

Although we don't think about it, the U.S. Capitol can be a dangerous place. Five congressmen were wounded in 1954 when Puerto Rican nationalists fired on the House floor from the visitors' gallery. In 1983, a powerful bomb exploded on the Senate side of the Capitol. No one was injured, and the extensive damage was repaired.

As the directly elected branch of government, Congress cannot close itself off from the people. Citizens have the right to observe and participate in the making of this nation's laws. A sixth-grade social studies class or a group of farmers should have the same access to congressional members, hearings and galleries as the media and high-priced lobbyists.

Friday's shooting revived interest in building a $125 million underground visitor's center. But the outcome might have been the same. Protecting the public from people with severe hallucinations is difficult. Police officers manning security stations and metal detectors can't possibly determine which visitor may be ready to explode.

Mr. Weston was once committed to a mental institution. He could not buy a gun under the federal "Brady law." But he took a gun from a relative, who failed to tell police. Requiring gun owners to report the loss of guns might have alerted authorities. Perhaps they could have caught up with Mr. Weston before he used the gun.

It may be small consolation, but security measures at the Capitol prevented a worse calamity on Friday. Congressional leaders should keep that in mind before they restrict access to the people's branch of government.

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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