Gunfire erupted on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on March 1, 1954, when four Puerto Rican nationalists shot at random from the spectators’ galleries, shouting “Viva Puerto Rico libre!”—“Long live free Puerto Rico!” Five members of Congress were injured, one seriously.
The U.S. had annexed Puerto Rico in 1898 and the relationship between the island and the U.S. government had long been in contention. While some Puerto Ricans sought to remain a territory or become a state, others argued for independence. The nationalists who staged the attack on the Capitol supported the most extreme interpretation of the latter—use violence to draw attention to their demand for immediate Puerto Rican independence.
The surprise attack was mounted by four members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party—Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irvin Flores Rodriguez, and Andres Figueroa Cordero. At the time, the Capitol had few security protocols and the four would-be assassins easily entered the gallery armed with handguns. About 2:30 p.m., they indiscriminately opened fire onto the House Chamber, waving an unfurled Puerto Rican flag.
Representative Alvin M. Bentley (R-MI) took a bullet to the chest and was the most severely wounded. Four other representatives were also shot: Ben F. Jensen (R-IA) was shot in the back, Clifford Davis (D-TN) was hit in the leg, George Hyde Fallon (D-MD) was shot in the hip, and Kenneth A. Roberts (D-AL) was hit in the knee.
Those on the House floor quickly moved into action. Congressional pages carried the wounded to safety. As the shooters attempted to escape, three of them were overpowered by visitors, police, House staff, and Congressman James Van Zandt of Pennsylvania, who personally apprehended Rafael Miranda. The fourth shooter, Irvin Flores, escaped, but was captured later that day.
The four gunmen were tried and sentenced to more than 49 years in federal prison. Cordero, terminally ill, had his sentence commuted on humanitarian grounds by President Jimmy Carter in October 1977 and died in 1979. President Carter granted clemency for the remaining three later in 1979. Lebrón, the alleged ringleader and lone woman shooter, went on to become a revered figure among Puerto Ricans, and died in 2010. Miranda died recently on March 2, 2020.
Today, bullet holes from the shooting are still visible in the House Chamber.
- Search Chronicling America* to find more newspaper coverage of this topic and more!
- Learn more about this event online: The 1954 Shooting by the Office of Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives.
- Read a transcript from the House Floor the day of the shooting in the Congressional Record, available on Govinfo.gov.
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.