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Increasing threats unnerve lawmakers rattled by shooting

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    Supporters of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., hold signs before the Congressional baseball game, Thursday, in Washington. The annual GOP-Democrats baseball game raises money for charity.

WASHINGTON >> A voicemail message directed to Arizona Rep. Martha McSally last month warned “our sights are set on you, right between your … eyes.” Another voicemail said: “Yeah, Martha, your days are numbered and next time you show your face in Tucson it might be the last time.”

McSally, a Republican in her second term, forwarded the messages to U.S. Capitol police, resulting in federal charges against an Arizona man.

Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas was threatened with lynching by callers infuriated with his effort to impeach President Donald Trump. One caller used a racial insult and said the seven-term African-American lawmaker would be “hanging from a tree” if he pursues impeachment.

Since the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise at a Virginia baseball field Wednesday, members of Congress have spoken more freely about how threats of physical violence or death have increased in recent months, leaving lawmakers fearing for their safety as well as the safety of their families and staff.

“I’ve never been so shaken,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

The Scalise shooting “hits so close to home,” Cramer said. “We’ve all been under this cloud for a while of aggressive social media and threat assessments and thinking about families and whatnot and just trying to determine … is it even worth it” to continue to serve in Congress.

Answering his own question, Cramer said “of course it is,” but said Scalise’s shooting and threats against fellow lawmakers “does cause contemplation at a level I haven’t had since I’ve taken this job.”

The Capitol is one of the best-guarded buildings in the country, but when the vast majority of lawmakers leave the fortress of Capitol Hill, they’re on their own. Wednesday’s shooting highlights the vulnerability of lawmakers when they are in public. Only the congressional leaders have security details.

Even before the shooting, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi had begun talking about changes that could improve members’ safety, said Ryan’s spokeswoman, AshLee Strong.

Cramer, who holds many “Coffees with Cramer” events around North Dakota, said that several weeks ago, a man walked right up to him and tried to shove money down his shirt collar. Since former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot during a town hall event in Arizona in 2011, police and legislative leaders have urged lawmakers to ensure a local police presence at events, a practice Cramer said he has long followed.

“At this point I think that presence is a requirement to participation” Cramer said, pointing out that it’s not just his safety at risk — it’s everyone who attends. “So if people don’t feel safe coming to see us, we’re robbed of that opportunity. I love the interaction so we have to think of all that.”

At Cramer’s events, attendees sign in but are not screened for weapons.

Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., said she has received five death threats this spring and watched children in her suburban St. Louis neighborhood scrub away chalk outlines of dead bodies that had been drawn on the driveway of her home.

The children replaced them with happy faces. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch first reported the threats against Wagner.

Shortly after Wednesday’s shooting, Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., received an email with the subject line: “One down, 216 to go …”

There are 238 Republicans in the House, but 217 voted for a bill that would repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health law. It was unclear whether the email writer was referring to that vote.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said messages to his office became so vile that he told his staff some years ago he no longer wanted to see them.

“If you would like to come to my office, my district office, I can show you some of the letters I have framed and I keep over my desk for anybody who wants to think this is something about left-wingers,” said Clyburn. “Those are not left-wingers who wrote me that stuff.”

The voicemails left with McSally’s congressional office resulted in a federal grand jury charges against Steven Martan, 58, of Tucson. The charges state that Martan threatened to assault and murder a U.S. official, McSally, with the intent to interfere and intimidate her while she was engaged in performance of her official duties.

The threats, while extreme, are becoming increasingly common, according to members of Congress.

Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., said lawmakers laid out threats they’ve received during a closed-door meeting following Wednesday’s shooting. Congressional leadership and the House Administration Committee are looking at what can be done to increase security because of so many death threats.

“Some of this is really nasty — people wishing ill things on you — but it’s crossed the line now into quite a few death threats,” Comstock said.

Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La., said violence — and the threat of violence — has no place in politics.

“I know we’re a divided country,” he said, “but Americans do not settle political disagreements with violence.”

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