Democrats seek to make guns in the Capitol illegal — for everyone

January 31, 2021

House Democrats this week are pushing legislation to bar lawmakers from carrying firearms anywhere on Capitol Hill — an old idea getting new attention in the fraught days since the deadly attack on the Capitol earlier in the month.  

Sponsored by Reps. Jared Huffman and Jackie Speier, both California Democrats, the proposal would repeal a decades-old rule exempting lawmakers from an otherwise blanket ban on guns across the Capitol complex.

The lawmaker carve-out has been in place since 1967, and members of both parties have quietly taken advantage of it in the decades since then, virtually without incident.

But the issue has been elevated to new heights this year after a handful of House Republicans, most of them new to Congress, have expressed a desire to bring concealed firearms onto the chamber floor, where current guidelines prohibit them.

Those rhetorical threats to defy the rules — combined with an episode last week when Capitol Police officers intervened to prevent Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) from bringing a gun into the chamber — has heightened the urgency among Democratic gun reformers to expand the firearm ban to include not only staffers and the public, but also lawmakers.

“What I think we've learned does not work is the honor system,” Huffman said in a phone interview Thursday, the day he introduced the bill. “That's how we enforce the current prohibition on guns in the House chamber. And we know that a growing number of Republicans are just flouting it.”

One newcomer to Capitol Hill, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), cut a video on her second day in Washington vowing to “carry my firearm in D.C. and in Congress.” She has since refused to allow Capitol Police to search her handbag as she walked onto the House floor.

Another first-term lawmaker, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), told local press that he was carrying a gun during the Capitol siege, although it's unclear if he was on the floor at the time.

A third Republican, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), is facing heavy scrutiny this week following revelations that she'd endorsed the assassination of prominent Democrats before coming to Congress. 
Those and similar episodes have intensified the distrust to the extent that some Democrats say they literally fear that some of their GOP colleagues pose a threat to their physical safety.

In response to those concerns, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) placed three magnetometers around the House floor just days after the Capitol attack — an extraordinary step reflecting just how far party relations have deteriorated in the combustible months since last year's elections. If there were questions about her objective, they were put to rest by one of her House allies, who said the aim is “to keep the jackasses from carrying guns into the chamber.”

Pelosi is now pushing for more funding to protect lawmakers — at home, in Washington and as they travel in between. But she's made clear that she deems some Republicans a part of the threat.

“We will probably need a supplemental for more security for members when the enemy is within the House of Representatives — a threat that the members are concerned about — in addition to what is happening outside,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol on Thursday.  

Asked to expound, Pelosi was terse. “It means that we have members of Congress who want to bring guns on the floor and have threatened violence on other members of Congress,” she said.

Some Republican lawmakers have already balked at the idea of walking through the magnetometers during votes, opting to glide around them. Pelosi quickly responded, threatening thousands of dollars in fines for each violation — a policy the House is expected to adopt next week.

Enforcement of the legislative ban on armed lawmakers is less certain. Huffman said that decision would be left to the U.S. Capitol Police Board, although he suggested the simplest strategy would be to have lawmakers screened just like everyone else each time they enter the Capitol complex.

“I think we've arrived at a time when members of Congress need to play by those same rules,” he said.

The 1967 guidelines allowing lawmakers to carry arms are also a design of the Capitol Police Board, which consists of the sergeants-at-arms in both chambers, the Capitol Architect and the chief of the Capitol Police. And even Huffman says the preferred strategy is to have the Board repeal that rule, rather than adopt the change legislatively.

After the Jan. 6 attack, however, the Board is in a state of disarray, as three of the four members have been replaced, and it's unclear if they're examining the issue.

“The problem is that that board is not really functioning right now,” Huffman said. “It's important for this bill to move forward, if nothing else, to keep this issue front and center and to serve as a backstop in case they decline to take action.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Capitol Police did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the Rules Committee, had faced some pressure from Democrats to attach the gun ban to the rules package for the new Congress, which was approved in the first week of January. Speaking with The Hill earlier in the month, McGovern said Democratic leaders opted against it, largely for two reasons. First, he said the Police Board is reviewing its firearms guidelines, including the lawmaker exemption. And second, House rules cover only half of the Capitol complex, making enforcement logistically impossible without Senate buy-in.

The regulation is bicameral,” he said, emphasizing that he supports Huffman's goals.

With Democrats now controlling the Senate, Huffman said he's hoping to find support for his proposal in the upper chamber, though it's unclear if Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has the issue on his radar.

Schumer's office did not respond to several requests for comment.

However the debate plays out, supporters of the gun ban say their case has been bolstered by an unlikely group: the same rabble-rousing Republicans — including Boebert, Cawthorn and Greene — whose headline-grabbing controversies have quickly become a headache for GOP leaders.  

“These folks, through their bad behavior, are making a far better case than anything I could say,” Huffman said. 

Source: The Hill