Sat, Nov 01, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Toy gun starts scare at Capitol building

REUTERS , WASHINGTON

Two female staffers carrying Halloween costumes and a toy gun inadvertently caused a big scare at the US Capitol on Thursday and triggered complaints that post-Sept. 11 security had failed.

A US Congress office building was locked down for more than an hour before the pair realized they were the target of a massive search and convinced authorities they had no criminal intent.

"It was just an unusual set of Halloween circumstances," Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer told reporters as heavily armed officers left the building.

"I don't think they had any ill intent," Gainer said of the two congressional staffers. "They're very sorry this all happened."

"I don't think anybody was trying to trick anybody," Gainer said, adding he didn't think any charges would be filed.

Police went on alert after the X-ray screen machine showed an image of what looked like a gun in a knapsack. Apparently the security officer had been momentarily distracted by a visitor asking directions and when she looked at the X-ray image the staffers had already left with their backpack.

As police scoured the building, some angry lawmakers complained that the incident showed that security bolstered after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US had come up short.

"There have been security breaks here on several levels," complained Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat.

She said the two staffers not only managed to walk past security, but many lawmakers were not immediately alerted by police and learned of it only from television or their own aides.

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