Five days before the Capitol insurrection, 83 House Republican lawmakers wrote a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy asking them to uphold lawmakers’ right to carry firearms inside the U.S. Capitol complex. They cited several attacks, including a 1954 shooting by Puerto Rican nationalists who wounded five Congressmen; a 1998 shooting that killed two Capitol Police officers; and a 2017 shooting at a Congressional baseball practice in Northern Virginia, which left four people wounded.
One of the signatories on the January 1 letter, freshman Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, made headlines for lashing out at Capitol Police who insisted that lawmakers go through metal detectors that were erected at the entrance to the House and Senate chambers following the insurrection on January 6. At least a dozen other lawmakers also refused, pushing their way past Capitol Police. The episode prompted Pelosi to announce a $5,000 fine for members who refused, and $10,000 for each subsequent offense.
A 1967 law bans civilians from carrying guns on Capitol Hill, even if they have concealed carry licenses. But the law carves out an exception for lawmakers, who can keep firearms in their offices. Guns aren’t allowed everywhere: They’re prohibited in the House and Senate chambers and their adjoining lobbies and cloakrooms, the Marble Room of the Senate, and the Rayburn Room of the House.
But lawmakers can and do bring guns in undetected, their colleagues say, since they’re able to bypass security screenings throughout the Capitol campus. And Democratic lawmakers fear that members who insist on carrying guns in prohibited places around the Capitol might harm them. “Why would you carry a gun onto the floor?” Representative John Garamendi of California told CNN on January 15. “You want to get into fisticuffs or do you want to get into a gun battle?” It’s not just Democrats, either — some Republican members are saying privately that they’re afraid of their fellow Republicans, and even fear for their lives, CNN’s Jamie Gangel reported.
Staffers can’t evade metal detectors, though, and they’ve been caught with guns in the past. None of those instances ended in bloodshed, but in two local seats of government, elected officials have been killed by people who evaded metal detectors. In 2003, New York City Councilman James Davis was shot and killed by a political rival he’d invited to a meeting. Because the man had been a guest of Davis’s, he got to bypass the metal detectors. (Davis, a retired police officer, had been armed, but wasn’t able to unholster his weapon.) And in 1978, former San Francisco Supervisor Dan White, who was angry over not being reappointed to his post, evaded the metal detectors at City Hall by climbing in through a window and fatally shot Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, an LGBTQ+ icon.
It’s episodes like these that now give lawmakers pause. Members of Congress aren’t required to inform Capitol Police when they carry. Some of the 24 lawmakers present at the Congressional baseball practice shooting “are now licensed to carry firearms in D.C.,” the House Republicans’ January 1 letter revealed. And Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, who voted against the Electoral College certification, said he was armed during the insurrection, and said that he wished he could have gone out to talk to the rioters.
Representative Lauren Boebert, who previously ran an open-carry restaurant called Shooters Grill in the Colorado town of Rifle, made waves before she was even seated when she announced her intention to carry a gun in the Capitol. That prompted 21 House Democrats to implore Pelosi and McCarthy to include language in the House Rules package that bans lawmakers from carrying guns.
But the language didn’t make it into the new rules, which were adopted two days before the insurrection. Representative Jared Huffman of California, who led a failed effort to ban guns in the Capitol in 2018, tells The Trace that’s because the House Rules Committee doesn’t think it has the authority to ban guns throughout the entire Capitol. Such a move, he said he was told, “is more in the domain of the Capitol Police Board.” That was a path he started down two years ago, broaching the issue of a ban with the House Sergeant at Arms, who is a member of the Capitol Police Board, but Huffman said he ultimately abandoned his efforts in the face of Republican opposition.
Huffman said his fellow lawmakers and their staffers carry guns “all the time,” including on the House floor where firearms are prohibited, and they keep them in their offices, which are accessible to the public. “Who feels safer with some of these characters running around with weapons?” he said, pointing to the fact that some of the lawmakers who carry guns at the Capitol were the same lawmakers who had encouraged the mob. “Whatever norms might have comforted people in the past, we have colleagues who are on team sedition right now.”
Both Boebert and Greene contested President Joe Biden’s Electoral College certification. And a few days after the insurrection, a “Stop the Steal” organizer said three representatives who’d also contested the certification had helped plan the January 6 rally that preceded the riot: Andy Biggs, Mo Brooks, and Paul Gosar — all of whom signed the January 1 letter supporting their right to carry on the Hill.
Even before the events of the last few weeks, Huffman said, he worried about the reliability of some members of Congress. “Between the House and the Senate you got 535 human beings, and just because we’re in Congress does not mean we don’t have all of the same human problems and frailties that lead to gun violence all over this nation — mental illness, substance abuse, domestic turmoil, depression. So the idea that all 535 get to bypass magnetometers and walk onto the floor of the House with the president and the vice president and the cabinet, the Supreme Court, and the diplomatic corps under one roof — that is a very scary scenario.”
Huffman said he plans to take up the issue with the Capitol Police Board after the inauguration, and that he anticipates having the support of lawmakers in both parties this time: “I think the events of recent weeks have really highlighted the fact that this change is long overdue.”