Why is Congress a Gun-free Zone?

Every time there’s a mass shooting somewhere, we hear the familiar refrain from the right: It only happened because that’s a gun-free zone! If people were allowed to carry guns, no one would try that because they’d be gunned down. We’ve heard Republican politicians make that argument a thousand times. So why is Capitol Hill a gun-free zone? It hasn’t always been. In fact, it wasn’t even after there were shootings there in the 50s. It was until 1967 that they banned guns from the premises.

In 1967, with civil rights and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations assuming an increasingly strident tone—including several disruptive protests from the House and Senate galleries—Congress passed a new measure stipulating, among other provisions, that it be made a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison, to carry or discharge a firearm in the Capitol. Still, even after the Weather Underground detonated a bomb in the Senate wing in the early morning hours of March 1, 1971, ostensibly to protest U.S. military operations in Laos, Congress took few precautions. As late as 1983, visitors were required to pass through metal detectors at the doors to the Senate and House galleries, but not upon entering the building itself, where they remained free to walk most corridors and inevitably happened across dozens if not hundreds of congressmen on days when either chamber was in session. At most, they were asked to open their handbags and purses for a manual inspection.

The status quo changed on the evening of November 7, 1983, when a bomb tore through the walls of the Senate Republican cloakroom and also badly damaged the office of Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd. Fortunately, no lives were lost.

In response to the attack, Congress finally tightened Capitol security in a significant way. Whereas visitors had been able to access the building through 10 doors, now the Capitol Police only allowed the general public to use four, each outfitted with a metal detector. In later years, x-ray machines were added.

It seems to me that this is a test of whether those who make that argument actually believe it to be true. If they actually believe that more guns make us more safe and that “bad guys with guns” can be prevented from killing lots of people by “good guys with guns,” then every single event that they plan or attend, from the Republican National Convention to local townhall events, should be legal open carry events.

And all of the metal detectors and x-ray machines on Capitol Hill should be removed. After all, the place is crawling with police, the very definition of “good guys with guns.” If they think allowing untrained people to carry guns is going to prevent mass violence like this, surely the presence of dozens and dozens of trained police officers carrying guns will be even more effective. If they actually believe their rhetoric, they should never feel more safe than they do there, even if anyone can walk in there with a gun — the reality that they insist the rest of us should live with in public every day.

But they don’t believe it. They know it’s total BS. And that’s why their words and their actions contradict. Their words support the NRA’s position; their actions support gun control.

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