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The History Behind the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C.

9/11 and a shooting in 1998 spurred the development

It's in times of panic that cities learn how to reinvent themselves. These moments of panic have been the cause of Congress constantly improving their security since 1789.

In that year, the office of Sergeant at Arms was created with the purpose to maintain security and enforce protocol during floor proceedings. The U.S. Capitol Police were later formed in 1827. It wasn't until a bomb exploded in the Capitol in March 1971 that metal detectors were placed at the doors of the building. Further security was installed over the following decades along with standardized protocols and hundreds more police officers hired. Even with more security, incidents do still occur at the Capitol, though very rarely.

This past Monday, streets shut down and barricades arose in response to a shooting in Washington, D.C.. Around 2:40 p.m. EST, an Antioch, Tennessee resident identified as Larry Russell Dawson, 66, entered the Capitol Visitor Center, but was stopped once he passed a metal detector at the building's initial security checkpoint. According to police, the man drew a gun and pointed it at officers, who then responded by shooting Dawson. According to The Washington Post, at least one officer struck him, who was later placed in custody. By press time, Dawson's condition was not known.

This is the first shooting to occur at the Capitol in almost 20 years. In July 1998, there was a fatal shooting of two Capitol police officers. Before that incident, there were no other shootings for another 44 years. Because of these shootings and the incidents of 9/11, the Capitol Visitor Center was constructed.

The plans for a secure, underground visitor's center began in the mid-1970s. Congress funded the idea in 1991, but construction didn't begin until 2002. Despite the sense of urgency to better protect the Capitol, the center didn't finally open until December 2008 at the cost of $621 million.

The Visitor Center spans nearly 580,000 square feet and is the largest project in the Capitol's history. In the space, there are two orientation theaters, two small theaters, and the Exhibition Hall, which is where visitors are able to view historic documents from the National Archives and the Library of Congress. There are also two gift shops and an on-site restaurant.

While the Capitol Visitor Center allows tourists to educate themselves on Congress and the development of the Capitol, it in the end is meant to be a holding zone. Because of this most recent shooting, there will be a review on the levels of security at the Capitol building and if anything should be modified or improved.

For now, if any further changes will be made to the Capitol's security, it is unknown.

Man with gun shot by police at Capitol Visitor Center [The Washington Post]

Capitol Visitor Center took shape after 1998 shootings [USA Today]

Construction of the Capitol Visitor Center [Architect of the Capitol]

Protecting the Congress: A Look at Capitol Hill Security [Congressional Institute]