U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk was standing near home plate on Wednesday morning as the GOP congressional baseball team kicked off its final practice before the next day’s annual bipartisan charity game.
The second-term lawmaker from Cassville was one of the Republican team’s designated hitters, and after spending some time warming up at the batting cages in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va., he was ready to slug.
He was on deck to go to bat when gunshots were fired from the direction of third base, kicking off a traumatizing scene that quickly reverberated across Capitol Hill and the entire country via social media.
“The shooter walked up to the fence and started shooting at us, so we all started running,” Loudermilk recounted in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a few hours later.
“There was dirt flying up around my feet as I was running. He was targeting us,” Loudermilk said of the shooter.
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By the time the affair was over, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., had been punctured by a gunshot wound and was ushered into surgery. A member of the House majority whip’s security detail and several others were also hit.
The only reported death was the shooter, whom multiple news outlets identified as 66-year-old James T. Hodgkinson, an Illinoisan who had volunteered for then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders last year and mercilessly criticized President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans on his social media accounts. A Facebook user with the same name had also made profane comments about Georgia 6th Congressional District Republican candidate Karen Handel.
The other members of the Georgia delegation and their staffs reported they were safe, including Tifton-area U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, who had played on the team in previous years.
U.S. Capitol Police announced it was investigating the shooting and beefed up security around the Capitol complex as a precaution.
Trump said he and Vice President Mike Pence were “deeply saddened by this tragedy.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the members of Congress, their staffs, Capitol Police, first responders, and all others affected,” Trump said in a statement.
Policy changes in store?
Wednesday’s events threw Capitol Hill for a loop as most of the day’s official events were canceled and many lawmakers took to the House and Senate floors to pay tribute to their colleagues and call for prayers and unity.
The shooting led some current and former Georgia lawmakers to discuss whether more security was necessary for the country’s elected officials.
The shooting in Virginia “just accentuate: we’ve got to find a balance between being available and accessible to our constituents and the public and yet providing security for our leaders,” U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., said Wednesday morning during an appearance on the Fox Business network.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich offered a much different view on the same program.
“If you start sealing people off, they become an aristocracy of security,” the onetime Georgia lawmaker and Trump confidant said. “Yes, it’s a little frightening. Yes, it’s a little dangerous. But I think it’s also the price of a free society, and I would hope that we wouldn’t rush to tighten things up even more.”
The events also brought a familiar debate over gun control back to the forefront on Capitol Hill.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said “we need to do more to protect all of our citizens.”
“I have long advocated — this is not what today is about — but there are too many guns on the streets,” the Democrat said during a press conference. The event marked the 154th mass shooting of this year, according to The Washington Post.
Loudermilk said more gun control laws are not needed in Washington. He suggested that if the shooting had happened in Georgia, where there are more statutes on the books maintaining access to firearms, there would have been fewer victims.
He said the two parties should instead focus on fostering more civil political debates.
“There has to be a coming together in this nation,” Loudermilk said. “There’s a lot of blame, I believe, and rhetoric out there that’s pitting one side against the other.”
Gov. Nathan Deal said the shooting “should not be politicized.”
“I don’t think any of us at this point know what the motivations were,” the two-term Republican said in an interview Wednesday. “But even if they are political, we all need to understand that we sometimes need to lower the rhetoric in political circles, and in the media, that does not raise the fears and the apprehensions of people that would lead them to do things like this.”
The shooting put a damper on Thursday’s baseball game, one of Capitol Hill’s favorite bipartisan traditions for more than a century.
The nine-inning battle typically attracts hundreds of congressional staffers, onlookers — and occasionally presidents — to Nationals Park, just a 15-minute walk from the U.S. Capitol, to cheer on the two parties. Ticket proceeds go to local charities, this year the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation and the Washington Literacy Center.
Former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston had played on the team for 15 years but was not at Wednesday morning’s practice. The Savannah Republican said participating in the bipartisan game for charity was the “best experience I had in Congress.”
Organizers said Wednesday afternoon that the game would continue as planned. Loudermilk said he would play.
Less than 24 hours before the lawmakers were scheduled to take to the diamond, the Atlanta Braves were set to be on the same field to wrap up their series against the Washington Nationals. Both teams were silent on social media in the lead-up to the game.
During his AJC interview, Loudermilk repeatedly commended the Capitol Police officers who were part of Scalise’s security detail and fought back against the shooter.
“If we hadn’t had those policemen out there, it would have been a massacre,” he said. “God was there protecting us.”