A man who drew a gun while trying to enter a visitors centre in Washington was shot by police Monday, causing panic among tourists at the scene and prompting the building housing Congress to be placed on lockdown.

The incident at a screening checkpoint at the Capitol visitors centre involved a suspect likely known to police, and terrorism was not suspected, Capitol Police Chief Matthew Verderosa said at a press conference.

The suspect drew a weapon and pointed it at a police officer around 2:39 pm (1839 GMT). He was shot by police and was taken to a local hospital where he was undergoing surgery, Verderosa said.

One woman bystander suffered minor injuries during the confrontation.

Verderosa said the incident appeared to be "the act of a single person who has frequented the Capitol grounds before." There was "no reason to believe this is anything more than a criminal act," the chief said.

The Washington Post and other US media, citing police sources, identified the gunman as Tennessee resident Larry Russell Dawson, 66. He was arrested in October for interrupting a session of the House of Representatives by shouting, and was ordered by a judge to stay away from the Capitol complex.

The Capitol, visitors centre and surrounding congressional office buildings were locked down for about an hour during the busy spring tourist season when Washington is choked with visitors viewing the city's famous cherry blossoms. Members of Congress were out of town for a recess during the Easter holiday.

The White House, where thousands of families with small children were attending the annual Easter Egg Roll, was briefly locked down as a precaution.

The shooting follows last week's terrorist bombings in Brussels, which have prompted heightened security in many Western capitals.

Emergency sirens were heard across the grassy National Mall between the White House, where the president lives and works, and the Capitol, which houses Congress. The two buildings are about 3.4 kilometres apart.

Congressional staff were instructed by the sergeant at arms to stay in their offices.

A shooting at the Capitol in 1998 that left two police officers dead led to the construction of the visitors centre, which is designed to keep visitors at a distance from the building until they undergo security screening.

House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan expressed "deep gratitude, on behalf of the whole House, to the men and women in uniform who keep us safe."

He called Monday's incident a reminder "of the courage and daily sacrifice of the United States Capitol Police. The Capitol is our greatest symbol of democracy, and these officers serve to protect not just those who work there but also the millions of visitors from all around the world who travel each year to see it."

Nevada Senator Harry Reid, leader of the Democratic minority in the upper chamber, issued a statement applauding "the quick and courageous actions" of police "in neutralizing today's threat at the Capitol Visitor Centre. Thanks to their swift actions, no innocent people were seriously injured and the suspect was quickly taken into custody."

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