Getting there before the shooting can start

"If anyone is crazy enough to want to kill a president of the United States, he can do it. All he must be prepared to do is give his life for the president's."

-- John F. Kennedy

Those ominous words from a man soon to meet his own death at an assassin's hands must be weighed as members of Congress wrestle with the idea of safety for public officials in the wake of last week's tragedy in Tucson.

Individual members have suggested personal bodyguards or instructing selected aides in firearms use. A few congressmen have made public declarations they will start carrying weapons of their own.

As Lee Harvey Oswald proved, assassins don't need to stand next to someone to shoot and kill. The same was true with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Still, a gunman in Tucson, Ariz., last week killed six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, during an attempt to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.

The federal judge, John McCarthy Roll, a friend of Rep. Giffords, had merely stopped by to say hello that Saturday morning.

Ironically, the judge recently had emerged from round-the-clock federal protection because of a number of threats made against him in an immigration case. The judge had told Time magazine he found the protection itself "stressful."

Beyond the stress, members of Congress, even as they grieve over the loss of life in Tucson, are reluctant to accept more protection for themselves.

We understand their misgivings.

In a country that prides itself on close connections between the elected and the people, and the equality of all, even the most discreet barrier is a burden.

We must accept it for the president, vice president, speaker of the House and Senate majority leader because their reputations cross over state lines.

Any lunatic can take a crack at them.

With terrorist and other threats so great, the Secret Service employs 3,200 special agents, 1,300 uniformed division officers and more than 2,000 other technical, professional and administrative support personnel.

That is a long way from the lone District of Columbia policeman who left the president and his wife sitting in the balcony at Ford's Theater one night in 1865 while he went across the street for another drink.

The mood in Congress and among law enforcement does not seem to favor more protection for the members when they are back in their districts.

It's not just a question of practicalities -- the sheer magnitude of providing armed guards for 535 members would be overwhelming, even on a part-time basis.

For most of the members, the more important principle is to maintain easy communication between elected officials and the people they serve.

There is nothing special about Arizona; it does not grow citizens radically different from our own.

Remember that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., lived under a sort of death threat last year.

"Somebody is gonna get through your security and put a (expletive deleted) gun to your head, and hopefully I will be able to watch somebody blow your (expletive deleted) brains out," one message said.

Law enforcement dealt with that case, but we don't have an efficient system for coming to grips with potentially dangerous people before they go the distance.

It is frustrating that we must await improved screening or diagnostic techniques to identify potential assassins.

Community college officials, students, neighbors, family members and even police had concerns about the mental health of Jared Lee Loughner, the man accused in the Tucson shootings.

As President Kennedy observed, absolute safety is impossible.

But a combination of better mental health care and police work might significantly reduce the threat.

Maybe someday.

In the meantime, we think it likely local police will be much more in evidence across the country at what used to be ordinary public meet-and-greet sessions between office-holders and the people who put them there.