Following the recent shooting rampage in Arizona, members of Montana’s federal delegation said they would not allow the tragedy to affect what they see as a vital part of the democratic process: access by constituents to their elected representatives.
“I want to be accessible and I don’t foresee that changing,” Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said in an interview last week. “I didn’t feel threatened by my job as lieutenant governor; I don’t as a congressman either.”
Rehberg held 75 public meetings during the last Congress, traveling from one corner of Montana to the other, often by himself. He said he has no intentions of changing his work routine, or introducing any additional security measures. His sentiment was echoed by Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, whose staff said the two Democrats do not intend to introduce any new safety protocols during public events in Montana.
“I will not let an act of violence like this stand between my highest obligation which is to serve folks in Montana,” Baucus said in a statement. “I’m committed to public, transparent and open exchanges where I can meet with folks, hear their concerns and ideas and fight to make sure their voices are heard in Washington.”
Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy confirmed that there would be no changes regarding security at public events, though any decisions still lay largely in the hands of Montana local law enforcement as to how much of a presence they deem necessary at visits by the senators or congressman.
“What happened can’t change the openness of our government,” Murphy said. “People will still be able to access their senators as they have been and do it safely.”
Six people were killed and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was wounded along with 13 other people after a man in Arizona went on a shooting rampage Jan. 8 while the congresswoman was holding an open meeting with constituents outside a grocery store in Tucson. The nature of Giffords’ event was similar in nature to the town hall-style events held regularly by Rehberg, Baucus and Tester, though in Montana, these events are often on contentious subjects like health care or legislation that affects logging and wilderness.
Also, like Arizona, Montana is a state where residents prize their Second Amendment rights, and where many express deep frustration with the federal government. Despite the similarities, members of Montana’s delegation said the shootings in Arizona, while tragic, represent an isolated incident.
Nor, they said, have they ever felt threatened.
“I’ve never had security; I’ve never needed it,” Rehberg said, “never, to my knowledge, had death threats or physical threats.”
“It just hasn’t been a problem in Montana,” he added.
Though Baucus’ spokeswoman and Murphy declined to comment on specific threats, Murphy said Tester, “has not felt threatened while being a U.S. senator in Montana. It just hasn’t been the case.”
The Arizona shooting has, however, prompted a slew of new federal legislation, with bills introduced or proposed recently that would ban high-capacity magazines, expand the ban on making threats to the president and vice-president to all federal officials, and create a 1,000-foot zone around members of Congress where guns are prohibited. One Republican representative plans to introduce a bill that would encase the U.S. House gallery in Plexiglas, so bombs or other hazardous material can’t be thrown at representatives on the floor.
Though, as of last week, the Arizona shooting doesn’t appear to have prompted much in the way of new legislation in Helena, it did spotlight a bill introduced in December by Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, that would allow lawmakers with a concealed gun permit to bring their weapons into the capitol building for protection. The same right would be extended to Capitol security guards with concealed gun permits.
“The Arizona situation, I guess, is timely to assist me with my bill,” Jackson said. “I noticed a kind of change in attention as a result of that.”
While the general public is prevented from being on the House or Senate floor while in session, the balconies overlooking the chamber are what concern Jackson.
“That’s my big worry, that I think a shooter would try to get into the balcony so they could do the most damage,” he said. “There’s no metal detector, there’s nothing.”
Jackson said he was being “inundated” by e-mails from Montanans supportive of the bill, as well as those urging him to amend it to include all elected officials. One e-mail came from a school board member concerned after a school board in Panama City, Fla., was held hostage at gunpoint by an ex-convict who eventually killed himself.
But Jackson does not want to hamper the bill’s chances of passing by broadening its scope.
“My primary purpose is safety for us because I think that we’re in jeopardy and I want to make it where it’s going to pass,” he said. “I’m not going to amend it because I think it’s my most important priority now.”
Jackson also mentioned a discussion he had 10 years ago with a Utah state lawmaker at a conference in Washington D.C. who described an incident where an armed intruder entered the Senate chamber and was stopped by several Utah lawmakers who had their own guns. Jackson could not recall the Utah legislator’s name, however, and Lee Newspapers’ Capitol bureau and Utah’s Deseret News reported the incident never happened.
Beyond his bill, Jackson said he hasn’t noticed any security changes at the capitol, and doesn’t anticipate major changes that could isolate lawmakers from the public they serve.
“In the past what I’ve been told is we don’t need that,” Jackson said. “We’re safe. Nobody’s going to come in and do that.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.