Giffords and Security: When Man Dropped Gun at 2009 Event, Police Were Already There

When Douglas Police Chief Alberto Melis got word in August of 2009 that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords planned an event at a local Safeway, his thoughts immediately turned to security.

Giffords' press secretary, CJ Karamargin, sent an e-mail to several city officials to notify them about the "Congress on Your Corner" event at the Douglas grocery store, but didn't request any police presence, Melis says. Nevertheless, Melis assigned police to the event.

He's the former police chief of Waco, Texas, near where former President George W. Bush lives, and during Bush's reign he helped provide security for foreign dignitaries, including the presidents of China and Mexico, he says.

"I just don't feel comfortable with having unprotected politicians walking around," Melis says.

Melis assigned one uniformed officer and a couple of plainclothes officers to watch over Giffords' Congress on Your Corner event. Just common sense, he says. He wasn't just worried about Giffords — the police were also there for crowd and traffic control.

The event took place during the national debate over health care reform, and most of the people there were protesting Giffords. As the national news media reported, one protester yelling at Giffords suddenly dropped a gun he'd been carrying.

Other folks attending the event immediately began to "scurry off, though it wasn't a panic or anything," says Officer Marcus Gonzalez, Douglas police spokesman.

The guy picked up the gun and walked up to a police officer standing nearby to explain what had happened, Gonzalez says.

"We were kind of like, 'Whoa!" says Gonzalez.

Police "checked" the weapon, then gave it back to the man.

After all, there's nothing illegal about holding — or dropping — a gun in Arizona.

Police didn't even get his name or fill out any kind of report, Gonzalez says.

Melis didn't know the man's name, either, but says people around the small town called him "Sarge." He was often seen riding a bike that sported a big, American flag.

Coincidentally, Melis says, old "Sarge" died of a heart attack a couple of weeks ago.

If Jared Loughner or someone like him had begun shooting at the Douglas event, Melis says having officers there "may have helped. But it is very hard to stop the person who is determined to die — who's on a mission."

Whether Giffords' staff sent an e-mail or made any other kind of notification to Tucson authorities before the January 8 shooting is still unclear. The staff, still grieving over the loss of Gabe Zimmerman and worrying about Giffords' recovery, hasn't returned our e-mail on the question.

The Pima County Sheriff's Office, which had jurisdictional responsibility for the area of the shooting, told the news media early on that it never received word of the January 9 Congress on Your Corner event. But a similar lack of communication isn't likely to occur in the future.

Last week, the Sergeant at Arms for the U.S. House of Representatives told House members to appoint someone on their staff as a liaison to local law enforcement.

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