Toy gun scare has Capitol police reconsidering safety measures

Posted 5:20pm November 6

by Ilana Weinberg
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

U.S. Capitol Police are actively trying to recover from last Thursday’s embarrassing incident, in which two of Rep. John Shimkus’, R- Ill., staffers caused the Cannon House Office Building to go under lockdown after putting a toy gun through the X-ray machine.

The incident caused a major uproar, leaving House and Senate leaders horrified with the thought of what could have occurred had it been a real gun.

“If this had been a real incident, we would all be dead,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-CA, told the Los Angeles Times last week.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer recalled his entire supervising staff to an all-weekend work session, during which they analyzed what went wrong, and what needs to be done to ensure the safety of the members of the House in the future.

Gainer announced that new security measures will be implemented, causing significant delays for people entering the Capitol, and the Cannon and Hart Office Buildings.

Security has already been tightened, with an additional guard at the entrance to Cannon, and more careful attention to the screening of the X-ray machine.

The legislative assistants to Rep. Shimkus were returning to their office from lunch carrying a double agent costume for a Halloween Party, complete with a plastic .38-calibur revolver in one of their bags. The police officer on duty had been giving directions while the staffers walked through security, not noticing what appeared to be a real handgun on the screen until the staffers were gone.

For the next 90 minutes, the Cannon Building was put on lockdown as armed SWAT team members thoroughly searched each floor.

House Administration Chairman Robert W. Ney, R-Ohio, directed police to immediately notify each House member, but many said they did not find out for at least 40 minutes to an hour. By that time, many had found out through live television reports, along with the rest of America, that the supposed ‘gunman’ was actually a staffer with a Halloween costume.

The Chiefs of staff for each House office member questioned how an event like this could occur after Congress had just spent $7 million on security communication devices for the Capitol Hill buildings.

The confusion was led off by a series of mistakes. Gainer admitted that there was a communication problem, and there had been poor placement of officers at checkpoints.

After the toy gun passed through the X-ray, police were put on a lookout for a man with a backpack, who had supposedly raced off. They later found out they were looking for a man and a woman.

In the year before the Sept. 11 attacks, Capitol Police had been given $104 million by Congress. Since then, Congress has approved an additional $777 million for the department, plus an additional $225 million for anthrax and security related expenses.

The incident ended last Thursday when the staffer with the toy gun came forward.

“This was an unfortunate misunderstanding, a result of my staff’s efforts to put together a Halloween costume during their lunch hour. They did comply with security measures required to enter the building; however, they were caught up in suspicious circumstances,” said Rep. Shimkus in a statement apologizing for the misunderstanding. “The staffers wish to convey their deepest regrets to all Members, fellow staff, and visitors to Washington who were inconvenienced by this incident.”

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