U.S. Capitol police have stopped at least 13 people from carrying guns on or near Capitol grounds since 2012, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.
In at least one case earlier this year, police stopped a person carrying a stolen gun along Independence Avenue, Southeast. The I-Team obtained U.S. Capitol police incident reports for firearms after Leo Thornton, 22, of Lincolnwood, Illinois, shot and killed himself on the Capitol’s West Front lawn during last weekend’s Cherry Blossom Festival.
The frequency of gun seizures raises concerns about future police staffing levels, according to the police department’s union. The I-Team’s findings also come amid an ongoing debate over whether the police agency is underfunded.
At least two of the recent gun seizures happened at or near entrances to major Capitol facilities. One firearm was seized by officers at the Capitol Visitors Center. Another was seized by officers at the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building.
In another case, officers seized a gun at or near the Thurgood Marshall Federal Building, which sits just north of the U.S. Senate buildings, the I-Team has learned. In one 2013 incident, the I-Team has learned police spotted a person carrying a gun in plain view.
The April 11 suicide was the only report of a firearm discharging near the Capitol since 2012, according to the I-Team’s findings.
The shooting created a frightening scene on Capitol Hill, where tourists had flocked for the annual Cherry Blossom festivities. Ramesh Nandi, a witness at the scene, said he was sitting on the US Capitol steps when heard the shots, as the gunman killed himself.
"I grabbed my wife and said, 'Run! Run!'” Nandi said. “I thought it was a sniper, because I didn't see a gun in his hand."
The agency operates metal detectors at all public entrances to the Capitol Building and the neighboring U.S. House and Senate office buildings and Library of Congress facilities. They also deploy more than 1,700 officers to posts and patrols outside buildings and on streets beyond the U.S. Capitol itself.
“These firearms seizures and arrests are the byproduct of our police work,” U.S. Capitol Police spokeswoman Lt. Kimberly Schneider said.
The agency would not comment on specific arrests, but the locations and certain details of the firearms seizures were released to the I-Team in a records request.
Two cases in the summer of 2014 of seized weapons became public. A congressional staffer and a lobbyist both were arrested in separate incidents after bringing weapons and ammunition into the Cannon House Office Building in June and July 2014.
Police union officials said the frequency of firearms seizures underscore their concerns about staffing levels at the agency. Union President James Konczos more than 400 officers are eligible to retire.
“The officers are absolutely prepared and focused to handle any gun incident we encounter, but in the future, things could get complicated with staffing,” Konczos said. “Should 25 percent of them decide to leave tomorrow, the department would be grossly understaffed.
Congressional leaders have publicly expressed concerns that the police agency needs a budget increase. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), chairwoman of the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee, said U.S. Capitol police had requested a $31 million budget increase for 2016.
Capito said the money would help the agency handle “existing needs that have been put off in recent years due to significant budget constraints.” She cited agency “training” as one of the needs that have been delayed because of the budget constraints.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia) said budget cuts ordered under the sequestration process in 2013 have jeopardized U.S. Capitol police’s ability to protect the grounds.
“I think it may well be time to look at whether the sequester has hurt the Capitol police,” Holmes Norton said. “They’re probably stretched thin because (of it).”
The budget for the U.S. Capitol police falls under the Legislative Branch’s funding in the appropriations bills.