Security check on Capitol Hill

Capitol Police guard the U.S. Capitol Building. (Photo by Roshan Nebhrajani / Medill News Service)

While on Capitol Hill, layers of security protect members of Congress. Metal detectors and X-ray machines line building entrances. In-office panic buttons provide quick access to authority. Nearly 1,800 U.S. Capitol Police officers attentively guard the perimeter.

But once rank-and-file members leave Washington, protection lies in their own hands.

The tragedy marring Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’, D-Ariz., “Congress on your Corner” constituent meet-and-greet, spurred members to re-enforce their own security procedures this week. House members have responded with myriad local changes, all aimed at enhancing the protection of themselves and their staff.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., for example, plans to host training sessions to keep office staff up to date on security protocol.

“My senior adviser for district affairs will serve as a liaison,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa. “This liaison would notify local law enforcement that we’re having an event and whether or not we expect a crowd, and basically any suspicious activity will be reported. But more than that, our staff itself will be aware of what’s happening.”

Some congressmen like Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. D-Ill. do not want to take premature action. “It is too early to tell what, if any, changes should be made based on this weekend’s events,” according to Rep. Jackson’s office.

On the other end of the spectrum, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C.., told Politico they plan to carry concealed handguns while in their districts.

Terrance Gainer, the Senate Sergeant of Arms, warns against this.

“I do not encourage members to arm themselves. Let them worry about policy and governing and let me worry about protecting them,” Gainer said.

He also understands that as public officials congressmen need to be accessible.

“They need to touch, taste, feel, the environment they’re representing. They cant do that in a bubble,” Gainer said. “My suggestion to the members and their staff is to think through security as they’re planning these events: When they’re getting ready, the staff thinks about location, chairs, food and the issues. Now I’m saying put security on there.”

On Sunday, House leadership, the House Sergeant of Arms, the Chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, Giffords’ chief of staff and more than 800 members of Congress, their spouses and staff members participated in an conference call in response to the shooting.

“The United States Capitol Police has communicated with members of congress advising them to take reasonable and prudent precautions regarding their personal safety and security,” said Sgt. Kimberly Schneider of the U.S. Capitol Police.

During the call, members were encouraged strengthen security measures when interacting with the public.

“It’s a tragic lesson. We’re going to be in touch with the local security and keep our eyes open.” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.. “We have to be vigilant.”