Local legislators reflect on shooting

Representatives said the heated national debate increased last year.

Published: Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 5:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 11:37 p.m.

U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, and Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, both said the debate over the health care legislation last year saw an increase in angry constituents showing up at their town hall meetings, prompting Stearns to have police at all of his meetings since then.

Stearns said he has even faced a man carrying a gun at one meeting.

Their comments came a day after their colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson, was shot in the head at a supermarket as she met with constituents during a "Congress on Your Corner" event.

"I'm still sort of in the shock of it," Stearns said, noting that the congresswoman is now responding to doctors. "It's almost like a miracle. Her vibrant outlook and dedication are respected throughout Congress."

He quoted House Speaker John Boehner as saying "an attack on one is an attack on all of us."

Stearns said after one of his 560 meetings he has held since being elected in 1988, a man approached him to discuss a problem.

"During the discussion, he said, ‘I'm concerned authorities might do something to me, so I carry a gun,' " Stearns recalled. "I asked him if he had it with him and he said yes. I asked him if he had a permit."

The man did not have a concealed weapons permit and he was taken into custody.

Brown called Saturday's shooting horrific.

"This horrible and cowardly act is an attack on our entire system of democracy, to our form of government, and to our freedom," she said. "It is, in fact, a direct assault on the central principles of our nation's humanity and democracy."

Brown said that in her 18 years in Congress she has never seen so much anger and animosity as last year's health care debates. And one of the worst moments came during a debate in Gainesville, which she said was unusual for her stops here.

"The people were just very horrible in the room," she said.

She added that she has had to ask for the assistance of Capitol Police several times in recent years because she felt threatened, including when her political opponent, Dean Black, devised a campaign stunt to deliver sandbags to her home as a way to remind voters that Brown had requested special assistance from the city during Tropical Storm Fay.

"Somebody said they were coming to my home," she said. "That was very unusual."

Brown said talk shows and bloggers have contributed to the vitriol that might have prompted Saturday's shooter, identified as 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner.

"They have taken it to a new level," she said.

But Stearns said heated debate is as old as the American republic, pointing out that the Shays' Rebellion in 1786 saw unpaid Revolutionary War soldiers rising up to fight off high taxation the government needed to pay off its war debt to France. Those who couldn't pay had their property taken away. More than 150 were captured and several were sentenced to death.

"A lot of people got killed," he said. "The animosity in debate and political rhetoric has always been there."

Both members of Congress said they are praying for Giffords' family, as well as the families of the six people who died.

Contact Kimberly Moore at 352-374-5036 or kimberly.moore@nytrng.com.

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