ALEXANDRIA, Va., June 14 (Reuters) - A gunman opened fire on Wednesday on Republican U.S. lawmakers practicing near Washington for a charity baseball game, wounding senior Republican leader Steve Scalise and several others before being fatally shot by police.
The shooter fired repeatedly with a rifle at the baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, before being wounded in a gunfight with Capitol Hill police who were at the scene, lawmakers said.
Scalise, No. 3 in the House of Representatives Republican leadership, was shot in the hip. He was tended to by fellow lawmakers including Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio congressman who is a physician, before being transported to a hospital.
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Also wounded were one current congressional staffer and one former staffer. Two Capitol Hill police officers were hospitalized after the incident but it was not clear if both were wounded by gunfire.
The gunman, identified by a senior U.S. official as James Hodgkinson from the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Illinois, died of his injuries. Media reports said Hodgkinson, 66, owned a home inspection business.
His social media presence indicated he was strongly opposed to Republicans, including President Donald Trump. 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.
Trump announced the gunman's death and called Scalise, a 51-year-old Louisiana congressman, a good friend. Speaking at the White House, Trump said Scalise was "badly injured" but in stable condition and would recover.
"He's a patriot and he's a fighter. He will recover from this assault," Trump said.
Trump, who has been in office since January, also called for unity at a time of sharp political divides in America, saying, "We are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good."
Hodgkinson had raged against Trump on social media and was a member of many anti-Republican groups on Facebook including "The Road to Hell Is Paved With Republicans," "Terminate The Republican Party," and "Donald Trump is not my President," a search of what appeared to be his profile showed.
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.
Two lawmakers who were at the scene, Representatives Ron DeSantis and Jeff Duncan, indicated there might have been a political motive in the attack.
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Duncan said that as he left the field the man who would later open fire approached him in the parking lot. "He asked me who was practicing this morning, Republicans or Democrats, and I said. 'That's the Republicans practicing," Duncan told reporters.
DeSantis gave a similar account.
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.
'HEROISM' OF POLICE
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.
The shooting was certain to raise again the contentious issue of gun violence in the United States.
At a news conference near the scene of the shooting, Virginia's Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, urged gun control measures. "This is not what today is about, but there are too many guns on the street," McAuliffe said, citing a statistic that 93 Americans are killed with guns daily.
Scalise has been a strong 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.
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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.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan, Patricia Zengerle, Julia Edwards Ainsley, Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington and Gina Cherelus in New York; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry)