ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
The attempt on the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson on Saturday has renewed concern for the security of every member of Congress. Virtually every day, some lawmaker is the target of a threat. Still, elected officials insist they'll keep holding public meetings with constituents, and many are weary of any new restrictions being imposed for their safety.
NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA: The day began on Capitol Hill today with Capitol police rushing to close off an area, due to the appearance of a suspicious package. It turned out to be nothing, as is usually the case. But it was a reminder of the daunting task of trying to protect Congress, especially since 1998 when two policemen were shot dead in the Capitol. After 9/11, envelopes filled with deadly anthrax spores should up at senators' offices.
Congress was not in session today, but at 11:00 this morning, hundreds of staffers and a few lawmakers gathered on the Capitol steps for a moment of silence. It ended with a prayer by a preacher, Missouri House Democrat Emanuel Cleaver.
Representative EMANUEL CLEAVER (Democrat, Missouri): Bless these, God, your servants who serve this nation. Keep them safe.
WELNA: One of those servants was Michigan House Republican Fred Upton. He said everyone was struck by what he called this awful event Saturday. But he did not want the shooting of Representative Giffords to result in new security restrictions for such public events.
Representative FRED UPTON (Republican, Michigan): Most of us would balk at additional security things, knowing that that would - that's not who we are. I mean, we come from the communities that we represent, we're the same people that we were before.
WELNA: But lawmakers do get threats and many are real. And Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer says they've been increasing.
Mr. TERRANCE GAINER (Sergeant-at-Arms, Senate): On the Senate side, we average about five a week. Last year, I think we had 49 very credible threats. The year before that it was 29. But we've worked with the locals, and especially the FBI, the U.S. attorney and the local prosecutors. Some of those have been prosecuted. Most of those actually have been referred to mental care facilities, and that's generally the gist of the type of thing we see.
WELNA: Pennsylvania House Democrat Allyson Schwartz says she received a very real threat last year.
Representative ALLYSON SCHWARTZ (Democrat, Pennsylvania): It was a phone call, and he said he's going to come and kill us and he had guns and he was going do it. So we took that seriously. The police took that very seriously. And he did have a gun and he did acknowledge making that threat.
WELNA: Still, many members of Congress say they simply can't scrap the meetings they've planned in their home states because of what happened in Tucson.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia was holding two meetings today with his constituents.
Senator MARK WARNER (Democrat, Virginia): My job is to be accessible to the folks who hired me, in a way that allows them to express their views.
WELNA: Speaking from his district, Minnesota House Democratic Tim Walz says he has asked local police to be on hand when he's held large events with his constituents.
Representative TIM WALZ (Democrat, Minnesota): I've got to tell you, if I'm doing a store appearance - which I've done dozens of them, just like Gabrielle did on Saturday - having a police officer stand right next to me, I think that can have a chilling effect on the positive rhetoric that has to happen.
WELNA: But some lawmakers say overheated rhetoric is itself a security threat. Here's Georgia House Democrat Hank Johnson.
Representative HANK JOHNSON (Democrat, Georgia): That kind of angry rhetoric can lead to angry words. It can lead to angry acts. It can lead to acts of violence.
WELNA: And now, it's leading to calls to lower the tone on Capitol Hill.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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