Killings Boost Vigilance as Public Officials Face Threats
Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy canceled a speaking event because of a security risk. An assistant U.S. attorney in Texas withdrew from a case involving white supremacists, and a city alderman in Wisconsin wants to carry a concealed firearm to meetings.
They are taking steps to avoid becoming the next target after a Texas district attorney and his assistant were shot to death, Colorado’s prison chief was gunned down and a West Virginia sheriff was killed while sitting in his car. Authorities say there’s no direct connection among the slayings, though investigators suspect white-supremacist groups in the Texas and Colorado incidents.
“It appears to be retribution, and in some cases well- organized and premeditated,” said Matthew Orwig, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, which includes the county where the prosecutor was killed. “Everyone still has to do their jobs, but at the same time, everyone needs to be more vigilant and be more aware.”
The U.S. has a history of political shootings, from the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy to the 2011 attack on Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who survived. The heightened awareness takes place as President Barack Obama, Congress and U.S. states are debating gun-control measures after the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children and six educators at a Connecticut elementary school.
After the killings of the prison chief and prosecutors, the Racine, Wisconsin, city council approved a measure to allow elected officials to carry concealed firearms to meetings in municipally owned buildings. Greg Helding, an alderman in the city of 80,000 who pushed for the change, said the measure was needed because the town hall doesn’t have metal detectors.
“You have to say no to people in ways that affect their lives, whether its zoning changes or liquor licenses, and you get a little concerned about it,” Helding said in a telephone interview. “You don’t want to sound like you’re paranoid, but at the same time, we should have the option to avail ourselves.”
In February 2008, a 52-year-old gunman stormed a city council meeting in Kirkwood, Missouri, killing two police officers, two council members and the public works director before police shot him to death.
“There’s obviously isolated nut jobs,” Helding said.
U.S. Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, sent a letter April 3 to Attorney General Eric Holder asking that federal prosecutors be allowed to carry concealed firearms to work. Representative Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, said April 3 that she’ll continue to press for a bill requiring gun owners to have insurance after her staff fielded calls with death threats.
“I take the threat of more gun violence very seriously,” Maloney said in statement. “But it is not something that I will allow to stop me from doing my work.”
Some public officials, such as Malloy, are avoiding potentially dangerous situations. The Democratic governor was scheduled to speak at an Autism Awareness Day gathering in the Hartford statehouse April 3. He would have had to walk through a crowd of pro-gun activists, hundreds of whom flooded the Capitol ahead of a vote to ban assault-style weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines.
“When the governor’s security detail makes a decision on an event, we don’t question that determination,” Andrew Doba, a Malloy spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Jay Hileman, an assistant U.S. attorney in Houston, withdrew from a case prosecuting 34 defendants of the Aryan Brotherhood after Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife were found shot to death inside their home March 30. McLelland, and his assistant Mark Hasse, who was gunned down Jan.31, were part of the investigation into the white-supremacist prison gang.
Richard Ely, a Houston attorney representing one of the 34 defendants, said Hileman told him in an e-mail that he was withdrawing from the case for security reasons.
“He decided it needed to be done, and it was appropriate as far as I’m concerned,” Ely said by telephone.
Hileman didn’t respond to a phone call seeking comment.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing the Texas killings. It’s too early to determine if any relationship exists among the shooting there, the killing of the West Virginia sheriff and the slaying of the Colorado prison chief, said Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman.
Attorneys for James Holmes, accused of killing 12 people in a Colorado movie theater in July, have said he’s mentally ill. Jared Loughner, who is serving a life sentence for killing six people and wounding 13, including Giffords, was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Some new gun-control laws, like one passed in New York, try to keep the weapons away from the mentally ill. Mental health practitioners in the Empire State are required to report patients to law enforcement if they deem them a threat and the state can remove firearms from their homes under the law Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, pushed through in January.
Orwig, the former U.S. attorney, said the recent killings of public officials may mark the start of a new era.
“Whether this is the new normal and we’re entering an age where it’s more dangerous than ever to be involved in law enforcement, or if these killings are a confluence of events that are unusual and won’t become part of a pattern, it’s too soon to tell,” he said.
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