Today, a young assassin attempted to kill Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona while she was holding a public meeting outside a Tucson grocery store. Details of the incident are somewhat sketchy, but this much is known: she was shot in the head at close range, then the shooter began shooting many other people nearby. Six people were killed, including a Federal judge who was a friend of Giffords, a nine-year-old girl, one of Giffords' staff, and three different seventy-year-old ladies, mostly people who just happened to be there. Giffords, miraculously, may survive and recover, as the bullet went straight through her head.
We had highlighted Congresswoman Giffords' re-election race in November--it was one of the closest races in the country, and she escaped defeat to a right-winger by only a few hundred votes. Apparently we erred when we described her multicultural district, one very close to the border with Mexico, as being less subjected to the overheated passions--particularly those rising from Arizona's recent bill directed at intercepting and deporting illegal immigrants--than the Phoenix area. In fact, her office there had been broken into, and Giffords--a moderate Democrat, in fact a Blue Dog--had spoken about the overheated rhetoric, which had led to public incidents and threats. Nevertheless, Giffords was conducting a fairly normal public meeting with no added security when this outrage occurred.
The sheriff of Tucson's Pima County, Clarence Dupnik, came on tonight for a heated news conference, one in which he disclosed a great deal, including that the young assassin may have had an older accomplice. A friend and colleague of both Giffords and the murdered U.S. judge John Roll, Dupnik was perhaps too closely involved and emotional and said more than he might. In particular, he spoke quite harshly about the level of "vitriol" in the political discourse as something which may have pushed this unbalanced individual over the edge to commit this terrible act. Whether he has a basis for this accusation is unclear, but I would agree that this incident is more than just an isolated bit of madness, but a sign of a madness infecting the country more broadly.
Politically, there is nothing much of value that can be or will be said in the short run. All, even those whose vitriolic speech may have contributed to the poisonous political environment, say nothing other than the appropriate: condemn the act, sympathy for the victims, pray the ired recover. Nobody's going to admit that it was his/her/their own inflammatory rhetoric that contributed. Ironically, Giffords was something of a favorite of Fox News, and she often and willingly appeared on interviews for them.
The alleged shooter--about whose identity there can be little doubt, as he was tackled, at great personal danger, by two persons present at the scene of the crime--has refused to talk. He has left, on YouTube and Facebook, plenty of evidence suggesting that he was disturbed, very angry about the Federal government, possibly deranged. Whatever his motivation, his actions are psychotic.
It is an unfortunate fact that Arizona has a gun-happy culture as well as the overheated political environment. That area is a great destination used by the Mexican drug cartel to buy guns, because it's easy there. There may be too much focus on the political demagogues who ginned up this perpetrator's confused mind, and not enough on the fact this nutjob--who the Sheriff has said made threats and has had recent trouble with the law--was allowed legally to own a semiautomatic 9mm handgun (which he apparently fitted with an extra-large magazine--probably illegally--which allowed him to shoot 15-20 times or more without reloading).
This kind of thing is happening way too often in the US. There should be political consequences in the longer run, and I hope Giffords herself--or if she cannot, others who act on her behalf--will begin the difficult task of legislating limits on the "right" of nutjobs to continue to bear arms. If someone gets a restraining order, is arrested for drunk driving, is arrested for disorderly conduct, is subject to mandatory psychiatric treatment, the guns should be taken away.
It is high time that we recognize that this is a matter of public safety; it is an obligation of government under the social contract to have a monopoly control on armaments (especially those such as handguns or assault rifles which are only useful for killing people) so as to protect the public from the dangerous ones in our midst. We need an anti-NRA, a powerful organization to oppose the NRA's extreme positions in favor of access to all arms for all people all the time.