A rifle-wielding opponent of President Donald Trump opened fire on US lawmakers practicing for a charity baseball game Wednesday, wounding a top Republican congressman and four others before he was fatally injured in a shootout with police. The 66-year-old gunman was identified as James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois, an ardent supporter of left-wing Senator Bernie Sanders — who said he was “sickened” by what he called a “despicable act.” In an address to the nation, Trump appealed for unity following the early morning assault in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, which came amid high political tension in the US capital after a vitriol-filled 2016 election.
“We are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good,” said the president.
Congressman Steve Scalise, the number three Republican in the House of Representatives, was expected to recover after being shot in the hip.
Four others were wounded: a congressional aide, a lobbyist and two Capitol Police officers.
Trump described Scalise as a “very good friend,” a “patriot” and a “fighter,” telling him: “America is praying for you and America is praying for all of the victims of this terrible shooting.”
FBI agent Tim Slater told a news conference that investigators were still “exploring all angles” and that it was too early to tell if the Republican lawmakers were deliberately targeted.
He would also not confirm a report by CBS that the gunman used a high-powered semi-automatic assault rifle.
According to his Facebook page, Hodgkinson was a fervent supporter of Sanders, the feisty independent who battled Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination last year.
Hodgkinson’s social media posts displayed strong anti-Trump sentiment.
“I know he wasn’t happy with the way things were going, the election results and stuff,” his brother, Michael Hodgkinson, told The New York Times. But he said news of the shooting came “totally out of the blue.”
Sanders swiftly responded to reports the suspect had volunteered on his presidential campaign.
“I am sickened by this despicable act,” he said.
“Let me be as clear as I can be. Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms.”
– ‘Massacre’ averted –
All votes in the House of Representatives were cancelled for Wednesday, but the annual Congressional baseball game will go on as planned Thursday night at Nationals Park in the US capital.
The shooting took place at around 7:00 am (1100 GMT) as the Republican team practiced for the charity game, a well-loved showdown between Senate and House members of both the Republican and Democratic camps.
Congressman Rodney Davis told CNN he was up at bat at the time, and Scalise was in the field at second base.
“I was batting, we heard a loud noise…. The next thing I remember was somebody on the field yelling ‘Run, he’s got a gun.'”
Alexandria police chief Michael Brown said his officers arrived at the scene within three minutes, engaged the suspect together with Capitol Police officers, and took him into custody. The gunman later died of his injuries.
Trump praised the “heroic” acts of law enforcement in subduing the shooter.
“Many lives would have been lost if not for the heroic actions of the two Capitol Police officers who took down the gunman despite sustaining gunshot wounds during a very, very brutal assault,” Trump said.
“Melania and I are grateful for their heroism and praying for the swift recovery of all victims.”
Senator Rand Paul, also at the practice, said he believed the rapid intervention narrowly prevented a bloodbath.
“It would have been a massacre. And having no self-defense, the field was basically a killing field,” Paul told reporters.
Asked whether he thought it was a random shooting, Republican lawmaker Mo Brooks — who helped the wounded at the scene — told CNN: “It sure as heck wasn’t an accident.”
“People know this is the Republican baseball team practicing,” he said. “He knew who we were.”
– ‘Dragging his body’ –
Scalise’s office said the 51-year-old was in stable condition at a Washington hospital after being shot in the hip.
“Prior to entering surgery, (Scalise) was in good spirits and spoke to his wife by phone,” it added.
Brooks described Scalise dragging his body across the field to get away from the shooter while the firing continued.
After the shots subsided, he and others at the scene attempted to tend to Scalise’s wound, while Brooks took off his belt and used it as a tourniquet for a bleeding staffer who had been shot in the leg.
Scalise, a representative from the southern state of Louisiana elected to Congress in 2008, heads the conservative House caucus known as the Republican Study Committee.
The staunch conservative is among the lawmakers leading the drive to repeal former president Barack Obama’s signature health care law, among other top Republican priorities.