WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan spoke directly with the gunman who opened fire on congressional Republicans Wednesday morning as they practiced for an upcoming charity baseball game.
The lawmaker — the only South Carolina member of the team and who left practice early — described in detail how he interacted with the suspect who later died from his wounds after launching a massive display of gunfire.
“A guy approaches me when I’m right there at (my) car and says, ‘Excuse me, sir, who’s practicing today? Democrats or Republicans?’” Duncan recalled.
“I said, ‘this is a Republican team,’ and he said ‘K, thanks,’ turned around and it’s the guy they have identified as the shooter.”
Duncan described the man, later identified as 66-year-old James T. Hodgkinson from Belleville, Illinois, as appearing just like “a normal resident” with a “reddish colored shirt on and didn’t have a bag or anything I noticed, nothing out of the ordinary.”
The ballfield where the Republican team has practiced for years is near a community recreational area in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, a few miles outside the District of Columbia.
Duncan told reporters that when he arrived back on Capitol Hill to shower at the House gym and start his legislative day, he saw Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., looking alarmed as he was briefed by two members of his security detail.
Following his shower, Duncan again saw Ryan, who he described as “looking pained."
“I said, ‘Mr. Speaker, I hope everything’s OK,’ and he didn’t hear me,” Duncan said. “I said, ‘Paul, is everything OK?’ And he said, ‘It’s all blurry right now, I’m trying to get my head wrapped round it.’”
It wasn’t until Duncan got a phone call from a former colleague, ex-U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., that he realized there had been a shooting at the ballpark.
Duncan said he quickly called his close friend and fellow teammate, U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., who proceeded to put him on the phone with a detective on the scene. Duncan then returned to Alexandria to make an official statement at the police department.
“I actually fist-bumped (critically wounded Majority Whip Steve) Scalise on my way off the field,” Duncan recalled during his time with the media while shaking his head in disbelief.
"The world changed a little bit today for us as members," Duncan added.
What comes next
In a phone call with South Carolina reporters later in the day, Duncan, the 3rd District congressman from Laurens, said it was not lost on him and others that, were it not for Scalise's security detail, the shooting could have ended in further violence, even fatalities.
Rank-and-file members of Congress do not travel with Capitol Police officers. Members of leadership, however, are accompanied in Washington and back at home by law enforcement.
Fortunately for Republicans on the baseball team, Duncan said, Scalise is both a member of the team and a member of leadership — and he happened to be at practice Wednesday morning.
Capitol Police officers would likely be increasing security protocol following the shooting, Duncan said. Going forward, Republicans may not practice baseball at that particular Alexandria park, he said.
The annual charity game, where Republicans and Democrats compete in bipartisan collegiality, is still scheduled for Thursday night.
Duncan did say lawmakers might start thinking differently about how they protect themselves in their districts. He said he hadn't heard much chatter about colleagues arming themselves with personal firearms in light of the incident, though members are allowed to bring guns into their congressional offices.
Duncan said he did not plan to do anything differently. Since his election in 2010 he has coordinated with local law enforcement as he's traveled through his district and would continue to do so.
He has been aware of threats made to members of Congress since January 2011, when just days after he was sworn into office his new colleague, then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was critically injured by a gunshot to the head at a constituent event in Tucson.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said it is not uncommon for temperatures to flare at his town halls back home but that he has never felt unsafe.
"My hope is that we can just watch our words a little bit, kind of tone down the rhetoric," said Graham, adding he has found it helpful to "just let people vent a little bit, blow off some steam."
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said he "typically has security at all of my events, anyway."
A familiar debate
On Wednesday morning, the House Natural Resources Committee was scheduled to hold a hearing on a legislative package aimed at hunting and fishing activities, which included a bill from Duncan to loosen restrictions on purchasing gun suppressors — gun barrel attachments meant to silence or suppress the noise effect of a blast. The director of federal affairs for the National Rifle Association was scheduled to testify.
That hearing was ultimately canceled, along with most other business on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers grappled with the events of the day.
To whatever extent the shooting will reignite the national discussion on gun access and background checks, Graham said he expected the outcome would be no different than previous debates following gun-related tragedies.
"People get shot, run over by cars, stabbed, it's a crazy world," he told reporters. "So, if we have that debate it will end like it always ends, where you're not going to tell law abiding people they can't own a gun because of some nut job."
Asked specifically about Duncan's bill, which critics said even before Wednesday's shooting would give bad actors more avenues to use deadly weapons without attracting notice, Graham said, "I don't know what that's got to do with this."
Duncan said he has already seen some efforts on social media to detract from his bill but didn't expect criticism to derail the effort.
"The shooter today was not shooting a suppressed firearm," Duncan added. "If he had, and he lived, he would have faced a 30-year jail sentence for shooting a firearm with a suppressor."
Further, Duncan said, the shooter hailed from Illinois, where some of the most stringent gun laws in the country did not prevent Hodgkinson from arming himself.
Scott agreed. "I think we should give ourselves at least a few hours to digest and absorb the tragedy that is upon us and not dive into a debate on guns," he said.
Scott was more focused Wednesday on calling for unity and an end to the divisive rhetoric he said was plaguing the nation. He also evoked the Emanuel AME Church shooting and the enduring image of Charlestonians who came together in that time of tragedy. The anniversary of that event is June 17.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., of Mount Pleasant, was recalling another moment when Capitol Police officers put their lives on the line to protect the House Republican whip.
Sanford was in office in 1998 when two members of the security detail for then-Whip Tom DeLay of Texas were shot and killed, including Jacob Chestnut of Myrtle Beach.
"South Carolina knows all too well the sacrifice that the men and women of the Capitol Police make to serve and protect the Congress," he said.