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A History of Panic

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Members of the Eighty-fourth Legislature spent their first week glad-handing and shuffling papers. Part of the basic office work included approving new rules that cover the electronic filing of bills and the creation of new permanent sub-committees, among other dull items. It was all fairly standard. One change in protocol, however, garnered several headlines.

Advocates for open carry legislation had spent the first day of the new session demonstrating outside before taking things indoors, targeting specific legislators at their offices. During their Capitol tour, the advocates crowded into Representative Poncho Nevárez’s office and berated him for being, among other things, a “tyrant of the Constitution.” A video of the incident was posted online by the most vocal member, Kory Watkins, of the most vocal OC group, Tarrant County Open Carry. Proud as they may be of sticking it to the man, the advocates at Representative Nevárez’s office pretty much shot themselves in the foot. As I wrote last week, scaring the hell out of people is not generally a diplomatic tactic and considering that he was surrounded by a bunch of pushy people shoving a camera in his face and saying really stupid things (a “tyrant”? C’mon.), Nevárez remained more calm than your average citizen, politely but firmly getting the group to leave.

This image of an angry crowd bitterly clinging to their guns and a base understanding of the Constitution did little to inspire sympathy among the public, fellow gun rights groups, or, it would seem, our legislators—the very next day the House passed an amendment, 137-5, “to be able to install panic buttons and eject hostile members of the public from their offices.” The amendment is to HR3, literally a “housekeeping resolution” that includes such details as the House recycling program and “assignment of desks, offices and parking spaces.” Explaining the new rule, the amendment’s sponsor, Democratic representative Trey Martinez Fischer told the Houston Chronicle:

“I think that public servants and members of the public ought to feel safe and secure when they come to the Capitol,”

As I understand from my staff briefing, that this very same group came to my office, I just wasn’t here,” said Martinez Fischer, saying his staff felt “uncomfortable.” The eight-term House member said he’d never experienced “advocacy that gets personal and physical.”

“Sounds to me like it was a very hostile situation that not only impacted the offices’ environment, but also bled out into the hallway,” he said. “And I don’t think any of that is appropriate.”

Here’s another legislator speaking to the Austin American-Statesman:

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Harlingen, said that he has never felt threatened in his office in five terms as a representative, but he added that issues that will be debated this session — such as immigration and allowing for the open carry of handguns, as well as shotguns and rifles, without a permit — evoke deep passion among citizens of Texas.

Any tool to “make sure we’re safe” is welcome, Lucio said.

The new rule is unprecedented in the Texas legislature, so out of curiosity I called up the Legislative Reference Library of Texas, seeking some research guidance. Specifically, I was looking for any past “threatening” incidences that could have prompted tighter security before today, wanting to know if this a systemic problem that needs to be addressed, even though I was pretty sure on the outset that it wasn’t. But more broadly, it seemed important to put the current concerns of our public servants’ safety in historical perspective. Should legislators be more worried today about the “deep passion among citizens of Texas” than ever before? Sure, it’s a straw man, but one that’s interesting to consider.

Quick aside: It cannot be overstated; the LRL staff is amazing. They said something to the effect of “we’ll look into it,” and when I strolled into the library unannounced two hours later, a librarian came over and simply plopped a stack of papers in my hand. As I flipped through the material—mostly newspaper clippings—the gift-giving librarian said in a loving, teasing, way, “If you want to mention us in your article…” before trailing off. Done and done, I say to these librarians who are angels, unimpeachable for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact they they were never elected.

Back to the question of whether our elected officials should be concerned that they will become targets of attacks and in need of extra protection. Examining the research revealed that if anything can be gleaned from history, it’s that cowering in the Capitol would be news to the past members of the Texas legislature, who didn’t respond to angry constituents by hiding behind their resolutions and the Department of Public Safety’s Capitol security unit.

The legislature’s first violent death was in 1864, perpetrated by a man with a perfect movie-villain name: Cornelius Paterson, Esq. According to a San Antonio News account from January 15, 1864, Senator N.A. Mitchell and Paterson were having a friendly conversation in Paterson’s room (the exact location is not made clear). Then there was shouting. Then a gunshot. That Paterson would ever shoot Mitchell appears to have taken people by surprise. Thankfully, the San Antonio News didn’t debase itself with contemporary news organizations’s efforts to speculate whether it was video games, lone wolf psychology, or some sort of trigger warning that led to the violence. “What could have wrought Mr. Paterson up to such a pitch of phrensy [sic] is mere conjecture,” read the piece. To be fair, the News does report the gossip everyone was whispering: Paterson was drunk.

Nine years later, and at the Capitol building itself, Senator Louis Frankee of the twenty-sixth district was “foully assassinated,” according to the Senate and House Journals of 1873, “robbed of his money” by an unknown assailant. The loss of Frankee was “rendered more deplorable by reason of this melancholy manner in which he came to his untimely end.” The House and Senate responded by officially calling for a “thorough and searching investigation … to ferret out the perpetrators of the deed.” And that was about it. No calls for beefed up security, although “in commemoration of this sad event,” they took the day off.

While Frankee was a victim of a mugging gone wrong, it wasn’t until 1903 that the Austin Statesman declared that “Texas loses her first official at the hands of an assassin.” Comptroller R.M. Love was shot and killed by a family friend, W.G. Hill, in Love’s office in the east wing of the Capitol building, the story of which is wonderfully detailed in the book Haunted Austin. The reason for the shooting was some perceived corruption involving the “practice of bartering department clerkships for private gain,” according to the note Hill handed Love before shooting him with a .38-Caliber Smith & Wesson. Despite being something of a family dispute and not the act of some nutty John Q. Public, the note, incidentally, began with some rather lofty language: “Public Office is a public trust. Public offices are created for the service of the people and not for the aggrandizement of a few individuals.” After Love was shot, Hill took a bullet himself after a bookkeeper rushed into the office and wrestled Hill to the ground. Attempting to swallow an opiate vial so he could die easily, the bookkeeper “slapped it out of his hands – there would be no quick death for this assassin, but a slow, painful one.” And what was Love’s reaction to being mortally shot? It wasn’t a call for a panic button, but a plea for forgiveness for his killer. From the July 1, 1903, Austin Statesman story:

With the vital blood percolating from his body in two places, converting snowy drapery into crimson folds, tossing his head from side to side, eyes closed and fingers clinched, the victim of the assassin’s bullet blessed his precious wife and children, and in the spirit of the Savior he had tried to serve, prayed, ‘Ah, God forgive and save him who hath robbed me of my life.’

Representative Lucio might be worried about his safety because legislators this session will debate issues that “evoke deep passion among citizens of Texas,” but he’s got nothing on Senator E.F. Hall. According to a 1885 account from the New York Times, Hall had spent the previous legislative session bad-mouthing the Texas Rangers and was  “particularly severe in denunciation of those troops located in his district.” Those denunciations directly led to the “disbandment of command”  for that district’s Texas Ranger’s captain, Joseph Sheely, who did not take things well. While Hall was in a Laredo movie theater, Sheely “approached and struck him squarely in the face with his open hand.” Hall responded by standing up and firing his revolver. Sheely did the same and “a perfect panic ensued in the theatre.” Hall, the honorable badass from Laredo, “faced his antagonist in the most desperate fashion, stepping forward and firing every time Sheely fired.” Sheely ended up with a shoulder wound and a bullet-grazed temple while the only damage to Hall was his clothing. The story’s ending shows just how commonplace real threats to senators actually were, say nothing of past legislators’s toughness. “The bloody feud will undoubtedly be renewed as soon as Sheely recovers sufficiently. No arrests have been made.”

By the thirties, arguments were a lot more civil, even if constituents got in their representatives’s faces about topics far less exciting than abortion, gun control, and the Texas Rangers. From the October 30, 1935, edition of the Lubbock Morning Avalanche:

Representative O.C. Venable of Ennis told the house today he was attacked Sunday in Ennis, presumably because of his activity in the legislature in support of a chain store tax bill.

Venable said the attack occurred in a cafe after he had been accosted by an Ennis resident who used an epithet and spoke disparagingly of any member of the legislature who voted for the chain store tax.

Sometimes, legislative members got hurt because of things completely unrelated to their work at the Capitol. Senator W.H. Pope was shot by a male defendant in a 1890 child custody trial in Marshall, for which Pope was assisting with the mother’s case. The shooting took place after the male defendant called Pope a liar. No wilting flower when it came to his honor, Pope “seized a stick and hurled it at [the defendant].” For his troubles, Pope took a hit on his left side and the right arm. The most the Galveston Daily News makes of Pope’s part-time gig as a legislator is a single sentence: “The latter [Pope] is a member of the state senate.”

Even when the revered Capitol itself was the victim of attack, legislators seemed to keep a cool head and were regrettably resigned to increased security measures. In 1970, “antiwar demonstrators, shouting and throwing rocks, blitzed the building briefly,” according to the Austin Statesman. “The damage included broken glass in the massive, antique doors at both back and front entrances, other broken windows and two burned automobiles.” Then-Governor Preston Smith’s response is unbelievable in this day. He says “it looks like if we are going to have to tighten up our security,” almost as if he doesn’t want to do it, and even defends the work of nonviolent protestors, saying the mob act was surely not the message of the larger peace movement. Still, his defense of the possible security upgrades is almost noble in its reasoning. “I know the people of Texas would not like to feel their Capitol and all its valuable documents, art, antiques and other relics of our Texas history could be destroyed in another of these tragic mob efforts.” Notice, Smith doesn’t invoke the “safety” of the soft-palmed legislators, but rather the protection of the state’s collective history and relics.

In 2010, there was another incident involving a disgruntled member of the electorate and even then officials seemed more thick-skinned compared to our current lege. A man went into the Capitol, demanding to talk with someone from Senator Dan Patrick’s staff but was pretty much refused any sort of audience because he was “acting like something wasn’t normal.” When he left, aides called the Capitol security “to let them know we had someone in here acting strangely.” As the Austin American-Statesman reported, “Within minutes, shots rang out on the Capitol’s south step,” and the man, who had just fired into the air, was apprehended after a brief scuffle.

Such is our contemporary time that the next day’s follow-up story the next day was headlined “Shooting revives talk of tighter security.” By 2010, there were plenty of easily-scarred senators, like John Carona who a year earlier had “called for increased security after a witness threatened him during a hearing and was escorted from the building.” But the impetus for some kind of security, particularly after the gun incident, was understandable. Governor Rick Perry, however, was in classic form:

… Perry made it clear Friday that he’s not in favor of increased security if it means installing airport-like checkpoints.

“The last thing I want is the Texas Capitol to turn into DFW airport,” he told reporters after accepting a re-election endorsement from the Texas State Rifle Association and the National Rifle Association.

Perry said enough people in Texas have concealed-carry handgun licenses to deter violent criminals. “That keeps us all safer,” he said.

In May, about five months after the incident, metal detectors were installed. Again, Perry proved he was a man of the people, almost invoking Comptroller Love’s killer nearly one-hundred years earlier. Via the Houston Chronicle:

Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said Perry supports the rights of people with concealed handgun permits to carry their weapons, but she reiterated the governor’s opposition to placing metal detectors at the Capitol.

“The Texas Capitol belongs to the people of this state,” Cesinger said. “The governor is in favor of increasing public safety but believes less-intrusive steps could have been taken to boost security without risking long lines at detectors or diminishing the sense of welcome that was at the core of a visit to our state’s Capitol.”

Now, five years later, the legislature has voted nearly unanimously to diminish that sense of welcome. Specifically, they “may control access by the public to the member’s office and exclude visitors from the office at their discretion,” according to the amendment. It’s not a tough sell to say that with the passing of the “panic button” amendment, the legislature has taken what “belongs to the people of this state.”

In Lege’s 168-year history, there has only been one murder inside the Capitol and two serious security threats (the second being the still-unsolved 2008 arson of the Governor’s Mansion). And while no one wants to imagine the possibility of another serious attack or threat, is a “tool” that allows legislators to subjectively eject constituents necessary? History has shown that attacks on legislators are rare, an anomaly. No one can ever be guaranteed perfect safety, and as the record shows, Texans have been trusted to, and done a pretty stellar job at, behaving civilly. Extra rules are not only an overreach but antithetical to the Lege’s principles. Feeling threatened, in general, sucks, and if legislators really are concerned about being confronted by people with guns (as clearly seems to be the case with the OC crowd), then maybe they should pass a resolution that guns aren’t allowed on the Capitol. It might not endear them to the Second Amendment crowd, but at least it more clearly addresses the immediate concern and is less of a hindrance to the public debate of ideas.

That the members of Tarrant County Open Carry behaved regrettably (some “reeked of marijuana,” apparently) is immaterial. Whether it’s neo-Nazi skinheads, abortion proponents, the Texas Weed Growers Association, antiwar protestors, or Bronies, the statehouse should continue to be a place Texans can advocate their issues without fear of being tossed out because their opinion is unpopular, or because their presentation is not so polished. It’s worth remembering that democracy isn’t always nice and polite—but that’s no reason to panic.

Email Jeff Winkler or follow him on Twitter

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