Senate closing after Navy Yard shooting revives openness debate

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A defensive Senate was left to explain Monday why it shut its doors to the public seven hours after the Navy Yard mass shooting — even as the rest of official Washington remained open.

In a city all too used to security scares over the past 12 years, Monday’s events were a reminder that there still isn’t any firm conclusion about how to balance security and openness in the nation’s capital.

Police initially said they were searching for two other men who may have been involved in the shooting, causing eight schools and one school administration building near the Navy Yard to go into lockdown. The Washington Nationals postponed a scheduled night game at their nearby stadium. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport briefly closed to all flights. City recreation centers and open-air parks in the area also closed as police, reporters and onlookers snarled traffic as helicopters hovered overhead.

But beyond the immediate perimeter, the city worked, learned and played almost as usual.

At the White House, President Obama said he had been following events but kept to his schedule, delivering a blistering critique of Republicans’ spending plans. The U.S. House came in and went out of a shortened session as planned, and the Supreme Court was open to regular visitors.

The Senate’s more cautious reaction, however, stood out.

Majority Leader Harry Reid opened the day’s session at 2 p.m., nearly six hours after the shooting, but adjourned almost immediately, canceling votes for the day.

“In light of the events at the Navy Yard area today, we’ve decided to recess the Senate until tomorrow morning,” Mr. Reid said.

Nearly an hour later, just as police were announcing they had cleared one of two men whom they had been seeking as a potential gunman, Sergeant at Arms Terrance W. Gainer said he was putting the Senate buildings on lockdown.

That meant nobody could enter or leave the Senate office buildings, though people already inside were able to walk around freely.

But the House, which is closer to the scene of the shooting, didn’t impose any such restrictions. Indeed, tours were still going on at the Capitol, leading to the odd scene where tourists in the Rotunda were moseying around but were stopped by a squadron of armed officers blocking the hallway leading to the ceremonial Old Senate Chamber.

Staffers were still allowed to roam freely back and forth, though officers seemed confused about which identification cards were acceptable for those privileges.

That left employees at the Capitol debating the merits of the lockdown, with some saying it made sense, while others wondered why it happened seven hours after the shooting and only applied to half of the complex.

The lockdown was supposed to last two hours, but little more than an hour into it, Mr. Gainer reversed himself — and issued a statement defending why he acted so differently than the rest of the government.

“As the authorities went about the complicated mission at the Navy Yard, our immediate concern has been the unknowns. Is there a second or third shooter or isn’t there? Is this act of workplace violence or something more sinister?” Mr. Gainer said. “There are ongoing reports of a second shooter; lookouts have been issued. Accordingly the decision was made to go to a lock down, a limited shelter in place. This maximized your security, allowed the [U.S. Capitol Police] to concentrate on potential unknowns, on people approaching the complex, and provided additional time to gather information.”

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