Special guest post by Bill Gage
Who knew that members of Congress were at a baseball practice in Alexandria? Clearly the shooter knew that members of Congress would be at that specific baseball field. He probably researched the event, the location and the time. He possibly even surveilled the event before or followed the members of Congress from the Capitol to the field. This shows a level of planning that is consistent with others such as John Hinkley (President Reagan ) or Jared Lee Loughner (Gabby Giffords). Active Shooters typically follow the same pre-attack phases (1) perceived grudge or grievance, (2) target selection (3) pre-attack surveillance, and (4) the attack. It appears that this attacker showed a similar pattern. It appears that the attacker, James Hodgkinson, had a political grievance against Republicans. There are unconfirmed reports that before the attack he asked, “is this the republican or democrat practice.” Media reports also show Hodgkinson participating in anti-Trump and anti-Republican activities. This shows a perceived political grievance by the attacker.
The charity baseball game is a highly publicized event, with most likely some social media exposure. Members of Congress, or their staff, most likely put on Instagram or Facebook the dates and times of the baseball practices. It could have been as easy for the attacker as following a Republican member of Congress on social media, following his/her feed, then preparing for the attack. There will probably be some attempts to limit members of Congress from publicizing their schedule of movements on social media after this attack.
I worked with Capitol Police hundreds of times throughout my career with the Secret Service. There is a small unit with the Capitol Police, that provides dignitary protection to members of Congress. Typically, only the Congressional Leadership receives physical protection, and high level Congressional Leadership, such as the Speaker of the House, and Majority and Minority leaders, have mid-size protection details. Minority and Majority Whips typically have small protective details. I will not reveal the exact size of the protective details in order to protect operational security. I was on similar details many times throughout my Secret Service career. It is typically just you and another agent, with a pistol, a radio, and two spare mags. You are totally relying on your mindset, marksmanship and tactics to defeat an attack.
After the Gabby Giffords shooting, there was talk of providing every member of Congress some sort of physical protection. This is impossible. There are 535 voting members of Congress. Capitol Police do not have the current resources to do this and the agency would have to double or triple in size. Following the Giffords shooting, the Capitol Police began to provide enhanced security to large events attended by members of Congress, or when threats were directed against specific members of Congress.
The Attack: two pistols vs a rifle
I participated in hundreds of mock and training active shooter assaults during my Secret Service career. Based on initial media reports, this attack sounds like a standard training scenario that every protective detail trains for. The standard attack involves a lone gunmen, with an automatic weapon, that has the element of surprise and attacks without any warning. The protective detail was probably in a suit, sitting in a vehicle or standing near their assigned member of Congress when the attack started. Based on initial reports, there was confusion as to whether an attack was happening, and where the shooter was. One early media report says that one wounded member of Congress was crawling, injured and bloodied across the baseball field, as the attack unfolded (CNN). Another eyewitness account says members of Congress and their staff were shouting into their cell phones, “We are under attack!“ It was a chaotic scene, that reportedly lasted 5-10 minutes.
The attacker had the upper hand and the advantage. He selected a near-perfect location: a baseball field. The only cover around was the two dugouts, which reportedly everyone ran to for cover. During my time on CAT, we always stressed two rules of ambushes: (1) DON’T GET AMBUSHED, and if that fails (2) FIGHT THROUGH IT. The protective detail definitely fought through the attack, and early reports suggests that they were still actively engaging the gunmen until assisted by the Alexandria Police Department. As mentioned above, it was two pistols vs a rifle and the Capitol Police Officers were reliant on their marksmanship, tactics and mindset to defeat a better armed attacker.
It will be interesting to see how the aftermath of the shooting is spun by both political sides. There will most likely be the typical gun control screaming, how we need to tone down the political rhetoric, and spend more on mental health resources. What should not be up for debate is the courageous display of bravery by American men and women to defend democracy at home and abroad.
Featured image courtesy of Reuters