By Sarah N. Lynch and Ross Colvin
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) – A gunman opened fire on Wednesday on Republican U.S. lawmakers who were practicing near Washington for a charity baseball game, wounding senior Republican leader Steve Scalise and several others before being taken into custody, police and witnesses said.
The gunman died later of his injuries, President Donald Trump announced at the White House.
Lawmakers said the shooter, who was armed with a rifle, had exchanged fire with Capitol Hill police who were at the scene and was shot before being taken into custody.
Scalise, No. 3 in the House of Representatives Republican leadership, was shot in the hip at the baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia. He was tended to by fellow lawmakers including Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio congressman who is a physician, before being transported to a hospital.
Five people were taken from the scene to hospitals, Alexandria’s police chief, Michael Brown, told reporters. Two of the wounded were Capitol Hill police, witnesses said.
Trump, a Republican, said Scalise, a Louisiana congressman, was “badly injured” but in stable condition. He said two of the wounded were congressional staffers.
At a news conference, authorities declined to identify the suspect. The Washington Post, quoting unnamed law enforcement officials, identified him as James Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Illinois. The Post reported that he owned a home inspection business.
Police and the FBI said it was too early to determine a motive in the shooting or whether the attack was an attempted political assassination.
Some 25 to 30 Republican members of the House and Senate had gathered for an early morning practice a day before the annual charity congressional baseball game pitting Republicans against Democrats, said Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama. The game is scheduled to be played at Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nationals Major League baseball team.
One congressman at the scene indicated there might have been a political motive in the attack.
“We reported to police that there was a gentleman that confronted us when we were going to our car and he wanted to know whether it was Republicans or Democrats that were out there. We said it was Republicans and he kind of started walking to the field,” Representative Ron DeSantis told Fox Business Network.
DeSantis said he did not know whether the man was the shooter.
Representative Joe Barton, who was at the scene, told reporters the gunman was a middle-aged man who appeared to be white and was wearing blue jeans and a blue shirt. Brooks said the shooter said nothing during the rampage.
The shooting took place at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, which is across the Potomac River from Washington.
CAPITOL POLICE ‘HEROISM’
Brooks told CNN that during batting practice he heard a “bam” and then a quick succession of shots and saw the gunman shooting through the holes in a chain link fence.
When Scalise was shot he went down on the infield between first and second base, then dragged himself into the grassy outfield as the incident unfolded, leaving a trail of blood, Brooks said.
Two Capitol police officers who were at the scene to provide security for the lawmakers engaged the gunman with pistols, Brooks said, adding both the officers were wounded.
“But for the Capitol police and the heroism they showed, it could very well have been a large-scale massacre. All we would have had would have been baseball bats versus a rifle. Those aren’t good odds,” Brooks said.
Brooks estimated that there were 50 to 100 shots fired.
“It’s pretty well known in the neighborhood who those folks are on the baseball field,” Brooks said. “It’s not a secret we are practicing … He was going after elected officials.”
Scalise’s position as whip means he has the difficult job of trying to keep order in the fractious party ranks and rounding up votes for bills.
The shooting was certain to raise again the contentious issue of gun violence in the United States.
Scalise has been an outspoken opponent of gun control measures and has earned an “A+” rating from the National Rifle Association – the influential lobby for expanding gun ownership rights. He has co-sponsored legislation to weaken gun control laws in the District of Columbia.
David Miller, who saw the shooting, described a scene in which some players were far enough away from the gunman to run for shelter, while others were pinned down in the middle of the ball field.
“There was absolutely no shelter. They were in the middle of the ball park,” he said. “They can’t run. If they get up they are a target.”
Susan Griffiths, spokeswoman for George Washington University Hospital Center, said two people were being treated there and were in critical condition.
Wednesday’s incident was the first shooting of a member of the U.S. Congress since January 2011, when Democratic Representative Gabby Giffords was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt at a gathering of her constituents in Tucson, Arizona.
She survived, but six people were killed. Giffords resigned from Congress and became an activist for gun restrictions.
“My heart is with my former colleagues, their families & staff, and the US Capitol Police- public servants and heroes today and every day,” she said in a Twitter message.
(Additional reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley, Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington and Gina Cherelus in New York; Writing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry)