As a teenage page for the U.S. House of Representatives, Donald F. Munson was beneath the House chamber balcony when a group of Puerto Rican nationalists on the balcony opened fire on members of Congress in March 1954.
When he was a state delegate, Munson said a man once came into his Hagerstown office, threatening to burn the office down because he was upset with the Department of Social Services, Munson recalled Sunday.
“That kind of safety issue is a problem for all legislators, for all government officials, elected officials,” said Munson, a state senator.
“You have to live with it. Democracy can’t survive otherwise. If (you are) unwilling or afraid to meet with constituents, you don’t belong in public life,” Munson said.
Munson and other local legislators reflected on safety concerns Sunday, the day after U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head as she attended a meeting with constituents in Arizona.
Giffords was reportedly the target of the gunman, whose shooting rampage killed six people and injured 14, including the Democratic congresswoman.
“I know Gabrielle very well,” said U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md. He said Sunday that he talks to Giffords on the House floor frequently, almost daily. Giffords is a conservative Democrat who served on the Armed Services Committee with Bartlett, he said.
“You can’t imagine a nicer, sweeter person than Gabrielle,” Bartlett said.
Giffords has a tough district and is aggressive in meeting with constituents, holding “Congress on Your Corner” events like the one Saturday, he said.
He participated in a conference call with House leaders and the House sergeant-at-arms, along with more than 800 people Sunday afternoon, he said.
Bartlett said he was told the bullet entered the back of Giffords’ head.
Bartlett said he expects security to be tightened in the short-term, with concerns of copycat attacks, but he didn’t know if the Arizona shootings would result in the type of permanent security changes that took effect after Sept. 11, 2001.
“When one of these things happens, there’s always the possibility of copycat stuff. (There are) a lot of people out there whose elevator doesn’t stop at all the floors, as they say,” Bartlett said.
Instead of voting this week on whether to repeal health care legislation, House members will gather on the floor Wednesday for a resolution honoring Giffords, Bartlett said.
Bartlett said he’s never felt at risk in his district, which he described as a “nice district.”
The only threat he could recall was during his second re-election when someone was breaking up his signs and called his wife, Bartlett said. The caller threatened her and asked where Bartlett would be positioned in an upcoming Cumberland, Md., parade, the congressman said.
Some supporters wanted him to stop going to public events like the parade, but Bartlett said he wasn’t going to do that. Instead, he called the Capitol Police.
“I wore a flak vest at the parade. Nobody knew it, but several plainclothes people (were) there,” he said.
Maryland Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. said a constituent left him phone messages at his legislative office that referred to a story about a judge out West being sent poisoned doughnuts, which got into the hands of the judge’s grandchildren.
The message then said, “You have grandchildren, don’t you Mr. Myers?” Myers recalled.
The man was convicted on other charges, said Myers, R-Washington/Allegany.
“I think there’s a deep concern, a risk we’re all aware of and we have to accept,” Myers said.
“I don’t pretend to be a tough guy by any means. I don’t pretend to think everybody likes me,” Myers said.
Myers said, he’d rather discuss and debate an issue, then move on.
While he doesn’t expect to look around every corner, Myers said, “We have to be constantly aware of what’s going on.”
Del. Andrew A. Serafini said, as a financial planner, he’s occasionally dealt with unhappy people.
He’s had no threats as a delegate, but when you take an elected job, you take the chance that some people are going to make things difficult, said Serafini, R-Washington.
Shooting incidents like the one Saturday in Arizona happen in other workplaces too, said Serafini, noting shootings in schools and post offices, and the recent shooting at a school board meeting in Florida.
“I don’t know that I see it happen more in the political arena than in other areas,” Serafini said.
State Sen.-elect Ronald N. Young guessed he had six life-threatening phone calls during 16 years as mayor of Frederick, Md.
“I only ever took one of them seriously,” said Young, D-Frederick/Washington. “I just live my life daily.”
Several legislators said if someone wants to come after them, there’s nothing that can be done about it.
Del. John Donoghue said he has a lot of faith in the Maryland State Police, who provide protection for state legislators in Annapolis.
Donoghue, D-Washington, said he doesn’t see Saturday’s shooting changing the way he meets with constituents.
“I can’t walk around worrying my every moment. I think you just have to focus on the job and hope everybody is doing their job,” Donoghue said.
Del.-elect Neil Parrott said whether people disagree or agree with him, he enjoys discussions with constituents.
Parrott, R-Washington, said his personal safety hasn’t been compromised and he doesn’t expect to change how he would handle constituent meetings.
“My faith tells me not to worry,” Parrott said. “God is in control. He knows how many days I’ll be here.”
Del.-elect Michael Hough said he sees Saturday’s shooting as an isolated incident.
Hough, R-Frederick/Washington, said he has not had any problems with the public.
“You get nasty e-mails every once in awhile,” said Hough, who said his former boss, State Sen. Alex Mooney, got some nasty messages.
Munson said his office handled about 105,000 constituency problems during his time in office and most of the time, he wasn’t concerned about his safety.
He did have a panic button installed in his Hagerstown office more than 20 years ago, when one of his secretaries became concerned about her safety, Munson said.
Munson said the button was used almost two years ago.
He was not in the office when two people came into the office and threatened his secretary, yelling about constituency issues, he said.
“Eventually, she hit the panic button,” Munson said. The police came and discovered the two people had outstanding warrants, he said.
U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., said he doesn’t feel threatened and won’t change the way he does business.
“It’s hard to imagine trying to take care of every possible contingency,” Cardin said.
But Cardin said officials need to be smarter about security at public events.
Cardin said he will continue to reach out to constituents and that democracy needs to be open.
“What happened in Arizona was not just a threat against a congresswoman,” said Cardin, noting the innocent people there to meet with Giffords. “This was really an attack on our nation.”