The morning of June 14 turned tragic when a gunman opened fire at a practice in Alexandria, Virginia, for the annual congressional charity baseball event. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, two U.S. Capitol Police special agents, one staff member and one former staff member were wounded in a despicable attack that sent other members of Congress running for cover. We’ll continue debating what caused a deranged individual to commit this horrible act, but the sad fact is that whether it is by bomb, vehicle, knife or gun, America, and the world, are witnessing horrific carnage.
Here’s what’s not up for debate: From now on, I’ll be exercising my Second Amendment right to carry a firearm as I travel my district.
Like the shooting six years ago that wounded former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, for members of Congress, including me, June 14 hit particularly close to home. Not only because of reports that the shooter was politically motivated, but because of the way members of Congress conduct ourselves here in Washington and in our home communities.
Yes, the public exposure that comes with the job is something we willingly signed up for. And yes, being elected to represent our neighbors in the nation’s highest legislative body is a singular honor. My colleagues and I don’t have the same expectation of privacy that most Americans do. We understand that we are accountable to our constituents, and we welcome respectful, civil criticism. But all of us — including our families, our staffs and their families — expect and deserve to be safe from harm. After what we saw in Alexandria, it’s clear we need to do more to make sure that we’re protected.
When I hear concerns from loved ones, friends and constituents fearing for our safety, my instinct isn’t just to rely on law enforcement. Capitol Police officers were heroes during the shooting — their bravery and quick thinking probably saved the lives of Scalise and my other colleagues — but self-defense is my responsibility, too.
As Americans in my district and across the country know well, responsible, legal gun owners have every right to protect themselves, and that applies to members of Congress as well. I’ve worked to make sure these core values, preserved in the Constitution, are upheld. For my own protection, and for the protection of those around me, I’m putting these values into practice. Now, more than ever, I truly believe that the best place to be during a terrible episode like the one in Alexandria, is next to a good guy with a gun. The good guys this time were the officers who likely prevented a massacre.
But they were there because Scalise is part of congressional leadership, and he is always assigned a security detail. Rank-and-file senators, representatives and staff members typically don’t have this layer of protection. It might be time to think about changing that, but my sense is that most members of Congress don’t want this kind of protection. Not only would providing security for all 535 of us be a tremendous undertaking, it also would limit members’ freedom and interaction with our constituents. If our democracy is going to work, elected officials have to be able to travel in our communities, whether we’re going to official events or living our everyday lives, going to the supermarket, post office or hardware store. That’s why I plan to take responsibility for my safety, and the safety of those around me. My father taught me responsible gun ownership. For years, I’ve had a concealed-carry permit in New York state. When carrying a firearm, I’m always cognizant of the situations I’m in and aware of the laws governing this most important right.
That won’t change.
I owe it to the people in my community, God help me, to try to stop a threat to their safety, should it ever occur because of my presence.
We live in a time when everyone in our society has a platform to share their unfiltered views. Unfortunately, there are those on both sides of the political spectrum who employ extreme rhetoric that escalates tensions. It’s incumbent on all of us to take responsibility for our own words — I’ve reflected on the impact mine can have, and I’ve made a firm commitment to tone things down. I hope that all citizens, including my colleagues in Congress, and the media, will follow suit.
I’m keeping Steve, the others who were injured, and their families in my thoughts and prayers as they heal; I’m thankful for first responders, who too often must run toward danger; and I plan to take more responsibility for our safety. It’s time we all did better.
Chris Collins, a Republican, represents New York’s 27th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.