WASHINGTON -- A pair of security incidents at the U.S. Capitol in less than a week have renewed questions about the safety of the government complex. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters that officials are trying to balance safety with access to the building.
On Saturday, a 22-year-old man walked up the steps on the west side of the building and used a gun to kill himself in front of dozens of tourists. On Wednesday, a Florida man landed a small gyrocopter on the lawn in front of the building, prompting a rapid security response.
The two incidents quickly raised concerns. What if the suicidal man had opted first to point the gun at the people gathered to see the nation’s capitol? What if instead of landing on the lawn, the man flying the small aircraft had crashed into the building? Or had been carrying a bomb?
“It is my understanding that the Capitol Police are now conducting an investigation with the Secret Service, the Park police, the Department of Defense, the FAA and the D.C. police,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said. “When we see that, we’ll be working nonpartisan way. The Speaker and I have always valued and understood our responsibility to protect the Capitol.”
She added, “I don’t know how long that investigation will take, but we certainly need answers.”
Despite those questions, on Thursday, the Capitol remained open and accessible as usual while Congress conducted business inside. Tour groups filtered in and out of the plaza on the east side of the building opposite from the site of the two incidents. There is no security screening to get on the grounds of the Capitol, though there is security for those trying to enter the building. Crowds of school children walked up the steps that lead to the House chamber to take photos. A few steps above them, Capitol Police officers stood guard with M4 firearms.
There have been a handful of incidents in the past. In 2013, a woman was shot and killed by a Capitol Police officer after she tried to drive her car into a barricade at the White House and then led Secret Service on a chase to the Capitol. In 2006, an armed man made his way into the building and led police on a four-floor chase. In 1998, two Capitol police officers were killed and a tourist injured when an armed man barreled past security into the office of then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay.
Since then, some changes have been made to the Capitol complex -- which includes not only the capitol building, but also several office buildings on either side and the Supreme Court and Library of Congress across the street.
Congress added a visitors center under the east plaza of the Capitol, which provides a point of entry for tourists that doesn’t require them to use the same entrances as lawmakers and those who work in the building. This limits the number of people who can enter the Capitol building without official identification badges. But unless there is a high-risk foreign dignitary or the president inside the Capitol, people are permitted to walk up to the steps of the building.
Pelosi, who called it "stunning" that the Capitol faced such large exposure to risk, said that in addressing any security issue, legislative leaders must also weigh the need for accessibility.
“How much security can you have to still have a free flow of people coming into the Capitol to see the Capitol. It’s the constant balance of security and freedom, something we must make a judgment in everything we do,” she said. “What safeguards can we use? We don’t want to be a place where we’re saying this is an iron-clad Capitol and have such restrictions as to people having access to it. Nonetheless, we have to ensure the safety of those people.”