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New U.S. Rep. Nugent, a former sheriff, not surprised by Tucson attack

BROOKSVILLE — U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent's new job was supposed to be less dangerous than his last one.

Nugent, R-Spring Hill, had worked in law enforcement nearly 40 years, most of them in Hernando County, where, as sheriff, he was known to make a traffic stop every now and then.

But when the shots rang out at a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Ariz., last weekend, the country got a startling reminder of the danger that comes with the political spotlight.

It's a wake-up call that has elected officials like Nugent weighing security measures and, in at least a few cases, the value of a concealed weapons permit.

"You know there are individuals out there who could hurt you, but you don't put it in the context of someone hurting someone who's doing their best to serve their country," Nugent said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., this week. "But as a cop, nothing surprises me anymore."

The lawman-turned-lawmaker acknowledged he likely faces an even greater risk than many of his colleagues.

"People know me as sheriff, and I probably have more enemies from putting people in jail over the years," he said. "That doesn't go away."

Jared Lee Loughner, 22, opened fire with Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun at a meet-and-greet event hosted by Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Six people were killed, and Giffords and a dozen others were wounded. A bullet pierced Giffords' brain, but she was reportedly showing signs of improvement Wednesday.

Nugent, who was elected to the District 5 seat in November and resigned from the sheriff's post on Dec. 31, said he doesn't see a need for drastic changes to security protocol in his district.

"Legislators sometimes — and I've seen it because I've had to enforce it — have had a knee-jerk reaction to an isolated incident," he said. "We're not going to allow a singe actor to dictate how we conduct business. I think that would be a terrible mistake."

Nugent said he has not carried a weapon in Washington, however, where security is tight.

"I feel very comfortable up here," he said. "Depending on what happens, we may reconsider that."

Nugent said he won't encourage his staffers to get a conceal-carry permit. "That's entirely up to them," he said. "If they don't feel confident or capable, that can be a bigger liability than an asset."

He said he's satisfied with the security at the district office on Spring Hill Drive. There, the main area where staffers work is separated from the small lobby by a locked door and a wall with a service window.

The message he has conveyed to staff: "Just be aware of their surroundings and if someone comes in and gets irate, contact the Sheriff's Office."

As sheriff, Nugent often carried his Glock 40 handgun when off duty. Now, as a retired law enforcement officer, he is allowed by law to carry a firearm anywhere in the United States — and will continue to do so "with discretion," he said.

Does that include at meet-and-greet events here in the district?

"I'm not going to publicize when I plan to be unarmed," he said. "That wouldn't be much of a deterrent."

He acknowledged a gun would have done little to help Giffords. Indications so far are that she was targeted and incapacitated immediately. "But every circumstance is different," he said.

Some say they'll arm up

At least two lawmakers say the Arizona incident is prompting them to carry guns.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, and Rep. Heath Shuler, a Democrat from North Carolina, told Politico last week that they will carry firearms in their home districts for protection, but not in D.C.

Shuler started carrying a weapon after he received a serious death threat in 2009, but more recently got out of the habit. He is encouraging his staffers to get conceal permits, too, according to Politico.

"You never think something like this will happen, but then it does," Shuler said. "After the elections, I let my guard down. Now I know I need to have (my gun) on me."

As for security at district events, Nugent said he will do what his predecessor Ginny Brown-Waite did: Notify the Sheriff's Office beforehand. The agency sometimes assigned a deputy, depending on the expected turnout, and would at least increase patrols in the area, Nugent said.

Brown-Waite was among lawmakers who received death threats as political discord ramped up last year during the run-up to the health care vote.

Authorities used telephone records to track down 66-year-old Spring Hill resident Erik Lawrence Pidrman, who said he did not remember leaving a threatening message on Brown-Waite's office voicemail because he was probably drunk at the time.

Pidrman was sentenced to 27 months in prison after pleading guilty to one count of threatening to assault or murder a U.S. official.

Charges in such cases are rare because officials determined that the people making the threats had no intention of following through, the New York Times reported Tuesday after reviewing hundreds of FBI cases since 2000.

Studies show that those who do carry out attacks on public figures rarely make their intentions known to their targets or authorities beforehand, the report noted. There so far has been no indication that Loughner, the alleged shooter in Arizona, did so.

All threats have to be investigated and taken seriously, Nugent said.

"But we don't want this to become such a closed society where people don't have access to their elected representatives," he said. "It's bad enough up in Washington, where you have to go through all the security measures."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

New U.S. Rep. Nugent, a former sheriff, not surprised by Tucson attack 01/12/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 8:20pm]

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