Editorial 01-13-2011: Tucson Shooting

So often when we have stood in the wake of a national tragedy, we have pondered the question, “Why has this happened?” The answer to that question is valuable not only to foster a national sense of closure, but also to learn from the tragedy and move forward accordingly. Yet, the answer to the question of “Why has this happened?” is so often undefined, open to interpretation, and existing in varying shades of gray. The Tucson massacre is no exception to those parameters. If anything, it exemplifies them. Still, there is much we can learn from the events of the past week. 

            I purposely waited to write about this tragedy until some of the aftermath had unfolded. There were too many unknowns, and too many national voices trying to fill the unknowns with their own thoughts and assumptions. Because Congresswoman Gifford is a Democrat, many on the left were quick to attribute the shooting to violent rhetoric from the Tea Party and the far right. They were wrong. Conversely, pundits and politicians on the far right were too quick in dismissing the possibility that their rhetoric had been a factor. The fact is that violent rhetoric by the far right does exist, and incidents and threats have happen because of it. In the case of Jared Loughner, political allegiance was almost definitely not of his concern. Nonetheless, in the wake of an attempted assassination of a Democrat, the vitriol from the far right is troubling regardless of its influence on this particular disturbed individual. 

            At this point in time, I believe there is ample information to come to some basic conclusions about the shooting. Jared Loughner is an insane individual. His actions are the result of a Molotov cocktail of insanity, anti-government passion, access to guns, more insanity, and any other number of factors. The exact thought process that occurred in his insane mind will forever be unclear, and unimportant. The truth is that we will always have crazy people. We will always have people who are anti-government. We will always have access to things that kill people. Those truths don’t mean that we can’t minimize the risk of a future tragedy of similar ilk. 

            Looking towards the future, the national response from this tragedy has pushed two issues to the forefront. The first is our gun control policies.

           Much like almost all other issues in this country, the debate around guns is grossly oversimplified and polarized. The NRA and the “pro-gun” crowd have spun the most common sense of gun regulations into shots at our second amendment rights and our freedom (excuse the “shot” pun). In the 1980’s, the NRA went as far to oppose legislation banning plastic guns and also “cop killer” bullets. Under political pressure, they did change their positions. Moving forward, the stance of this crowd must change: Common sense gun control cannot be seen as unconstitutional, or as a threat to responsible gun owners. Discourse over gun laws must be encouraged by the NRA, not suppressed. 

             There is plenty of common ground to begin a national discourse on. Most people would agree that closing the “gun show” loophole is a smart idea. In some states, people who attend gun shows can stock up on as many guns as they want with an “instant” background check. This type of background check is unreliable, and almost anyone can walk away from a gun show with a small arsenal of guns. Most people would agree that guns that fire a high volume of bullets quickly and the type of extended clips used in the Tucson shooting and the Virginia Tech shooting, should be banned. After all, what use do they have besides killing mass amounts of people? Most people would agree that we need to clamp down on illegal gun sales. Most people would agree that the mentally unstable should not be allowed to own guns. Most people would agree that people should not be allowed to carry guns when they are drinking. Most people would agree that it should be more difficult for criminals to access guns. Let us use that common ground and move forward.

             An alternative argument to gun regulations seems to always be floated after a shooting is that if one other person had a gun, it would have saved lives. Essentially, the argument is a call for the masses to carry weapons with them throughout the course of their daily lives. Ultimately, it is an idealistic view with little practicality in realty. This is true for several reasons. Here are five random reasons off of the cuff:

  •  First, more guns in the hands of more people inevitably means easier access to guns for the mentally insane, as it is not always apparent who is insane, and how insane they are.  
  •  Second, citizens are not always able to pass judgment on whether or not another person should be shot. For example, if an armed man saw Jared Loughner open fire in a supermarket, then of course he would take out his gun and shoot him. But, what if two or three or four people had guns in the supermarket, and they did not originally see the shooter, but only heard the shots. Would they not end up shooting each other, thinking the other was the gunman? A similar situation almost played out during the Tucson shooting. There was, in fact, a man who had a concealed weapon on him in the supermarket. The man almost shot the person who wrestled the gun away from Jared, thinking that that person was the shooter. Luckily, he did not shoot.
  • Third, and this is an elaboration of point two, is that it would create a self policing state. This can be a good thing in some realms of society (whistle blowing, vigilantes), but not when deadly force is used. Too many mistakes would be made, and they wouldn’t be the kind of mistakes that you can take back.
  • Fourth, the impending lawsuits that would result from the aforementioned situations would be overwhelming to our legal system.
  • Fifth, the evidence in regards to gun ownership and gun violence shows that they are correlated. The states with the highest rates of gun ownership have the highest rates of gun violence deaths. The states with the lowest rates of gun ownership have the lowest rates of gun violence deaths.

             The first point is especially legislatively important. Because insanity is not a black and white issue, it is difficult to define who should be allowed to own guns. For example, people who are bi-polar are not insane. Yet, they have a clinical condition which can lead to deep depression and anger. Should a person with that condition be allowed to own a gun? It is, I think, a valid discussion to have.

             Gun control is an issue that should not be as polarizing as it is. Of all issues in this country, it is perhaps the easiest to find common ground on. However, it is only easy to find common ground if we actually sit down and have a national discussion on it. That discussion is happening now as a result of the recent tragedy, but it is in its infancy. I hope that it matures, but it won’t unless the pro-gun crowd is willing to compromise its hard line positions.

             The second issue that has been pushed to the forefront is the tone of our political rhetoric. The response to Barack Obama’s candidacy for President by the far right’s most vocal advocates was nothing short of bigotry, hate, fear mongering, and demonizing. This effect of this vitriol was so real that in 2009, the NSA issued a report warning of the possibility of domestic terrorism from right wing extremist groups. Yet, President Obama entered the oval office calling for a new era of bipartisanship. He called for bipartisanship with the people who were calling him a radical, a friend to terrorists, a socialist, a Muslim, a foreigner, and more. The notion of bipartisanship was unrealistic, because Republican politicians could not support the policies of a man that their base believed to be all of those things. So, Republicans opposed everything associated with President Obama vehemently. As a result, ideas that had previously been middle of the road (such as the individual mandate) became “socialist plots to cripple American freedom”.

 The demonization of Obama began with the Glenn Beck’s, Rush Limbaugh’s, and Sean Hannity’s of the world and was further fostered by Republican elected officials who embraced their views. As a result, many Tea Partiers believe that their President is a foreign born radical socialist who wants to ruin their country and take away all of their freedoms! It is no wonder that they would use violent rhetoric as a result of the damning lies which they believed to be true. It is no wonder that people outside of this faction would look at them like they are crazy.

 Republican readers may find the last couple paragraphs to be upsetting. I want to make it clear that I’m not saying all or even most Republicans said and did those things. But, most of the most vocal and influential figures on the right did. I’m talking about people like Rush, Beck, Hannity, and O’Reilly on the media side, and Palin, Bachmann, and countless other Tea Partiers on the political side. There is honestly no “opposite but equal” counterpart to this group on the left. It just doesn’t exist.

 So, what can we learn from the shootings in Tucson? Perhaps the lessons come not from the motives of an insane killer, but from the issues which have been pushed to the forefront as a result of his actions. By living in a free society, we risk tragedies like this. That does not mean that we can’t take steps towards minimizing that risk without impeding our freedoms. Would this tragedy have happened if our political discourse was more civil, and if we had more common sense gun laws? We will never know. Could future tragedies be prevented by taking these measures? It’s worth a shot.

 – Scott Bloomberg, co-founder & Treasurer of PACmen
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