Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Gabrielle Giffords was shot with a gun

A question I frequently find myself asking these days is, “Have we lost our minds?” I always feel a little silly asking it, though. If you look at any age throughout history, you can always find someone wondering why it is that civilization is finally running off the rails and careening toward collapse, yet somehow, civilization hasn’t collapsed yet.

That’s not to say there’s nothing worth worrying about. Consider the Nazis, who weren’t an example of civilization collapsing, but sure were an example of decency evaporating in the face of a government that Kurt Vonnegut described as truly obscene. Had the Nazis succeeded, and I’m sure it was possible, we’d be living in some vile parody of the flawed world that we all know and despair about.

The shooting in Arizona last Saturday has been on my mind almost constantly since it happened. As an avid political junkie, I’ve been following Gabrielle Giffords since she was first elected in 2006. I remember feeling optimistic about what she would bring to Congress, then feeling disappointed in what she was actually doing in Congress, then feeling relieved at her positions as they evolved away from the Blue Dogs’, and leftward toward the political center. It’s not like I was ready to start campaigning for her or anything, but I was pleased to see the evolution. She seemed to honestly reflect on how she felt, revising her opinions from time to time, as needed. This is an all too rare quality in anyone, much less an elected official. So while I would be disturbed by the shooting of any member of Congress, the fact that it was someone like Giffords only made the situation worse for me.

I doubt many, if any, people reading this is happy about the shooting. People seldom are, once shootings happen. Over my years of following politics and talking politics with people, I’ve encountered plenty of inappropriate talk and pictures. I remember someone who had a picture of Bill Clinton on the door of his college dorm with a gun sight drawn over his head. I remember people telling me that we’d all be better off if someone would just shoot George W. Bush. Obviously we all feel exasperation, but it’s never acceptable to speak so cavalierly about assassination. I doubt these people I’ve known actually would shoot a politician or anyone else. Assassins are almost always crazy. Charles Guiteau shot President Garfield because he believed the man, whom he’d never met, owed him a job in the administration. Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley because he wanted to demonstrate that American anarchists are just as serious as European anarchists. John Hinckley shot President Reagan because he wanted to impress actress Jody Foster. And Squeaky Fromme shot at President Ford because, well, she was with the Manson Family—what further explanation do you need?

And now we see the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords by Jared Loughner whose motives are not clear yet. The best I’ve heard in the way of explanation is that he’d written Representative Giffords some years ago, asking her, “What is government if words have no meaning?” This question resembles the several incoherent videos he posted on YouTube, which also make as much sense. The assassin Loughner has also left us a hard-to-read trail of personal information, his YouTube site citing as his favorites books that are as disparate as “The Communist Manifesto” and “Mein Kampf” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He also likes “The Wizard of Oz.” What does it mean? How can we connect any of those books? It’s a fool’s errand.

That said, there are fools willing to take up that errand. Already we’ve been hearing from people who are convinced that this is somehow indicative of Loughner’s political philosophy and thus his motivation. Some are also bringing up his marijuana use, suggesting a modern version of “Reefer Madness” might explain what this is all about.

Naturally, no one wants to place Loughner on their side of the political argument. And really, I don’t think he belongs on anyone’s side. North Carolina Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, no stranger to inappropriate hyperbole, has called Loughner “The liberal of liberals,” in a desperate attempt to place the assassin in what she views as the opposing political camp. Where does she even get this? Could it be his reading list? “To Kill a Mockingbird” has a definite liberal message—but “The Communist Manifesto” and “Mein Kampf” certainly do not.

Though there has been no official diagnosis yet, most of us, myself included, are concluding that Loughner is insane. For me, the answer to, “Why did this guy shoot these people?” is “He’s insane,” and that’s as good an explanation as we’re going to get. Loughner is not my political enemy; I don’t even think of him as having political motives. So don’t worry, conservatives: I’m not going to try to give him to you. He’s no more one of yours than he is one of mine.

The harder-to-answer question that’s been coming up in the wake of the Arizona shootings is: what, if anything, has our political climate to do with this? Much has been made about Sarah Palin’s again-famous map showing “targeted” congressional districts in the 2010 elections, marked with gun sights. Since Representative Giffords is one of two members of Congress who were on that map and survived reëlection, some are pointing fingers at Sarah Palin. I pointed a finger at Sarah Palin for this very reason. “Sarah Palin has blood on her hands,” I said. I meant it, too.

After a little bit of reflection, I’m not sure that’s quite accurate. Not directly accurate, anyway. Loughner was not operating on real or imagined marching orders from Sarah Palin, as far as we know. It’s more accurate to say that Sarah Palin is more responsible for the killing of rational, level-headed political dialogue (though there’s plenty of blame to go around for that.) I’m not sure if a more civil dialogue between all of us would stop massacres like this. We’d be better off as a country if we learned to be more civil and decent for us, since I believe that the lack of decency in civic discourse is threatening our country, our government, and our society itself. The smart thing to do would be to calm down and stop shouting. But as Jon Stewart said the other day, “You can’t outsmart crazy.”

Our reaction has been to pin this on violent imagery, on metaphors of guns and killing. Words can spur people to act in dangerous way, sure, but I get the feeling we’re all doing some serious contortions in order to avoid talking about the elephant in the living room. Jared Lee Loughner shot eighteen people, and he did it with a gun. A semi-automatic handgun with thirty bullets in it, to be specific, and the gun was purchased legally. Such guns have been legal in the United States since 2004, when the assault weapons ban was allowed to expire by the Republican Congress and President Bush, who didn’t even want to bring it up for a vote. And here I’m pointing fingers again, this time at Bush and those Congressional Republicans who saw political advantage in kowtowing to the National Rifle Association by making it easier for anyone to get these dangerous guns.

Massacres like Saturday’s massacre in Arizona are done with guns. Not arrows, not knives, not swords—guns. And after more than thirty years of relentless lobbying, the NRA has succeeded in making every single one of our politicians flinch at the mere mention of controlling any kind of weapons. “Our right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed!” they wail, citing the Second Amendment to the Constitution. But they’re missing a significant point: our right to keep and bear arms has already been infringed. The government won’t allow private citizens to own hand grenades. Or machine guns. Or anti-aircraft guns. Or nuclear weapons. Sure, most people wouldn’t bother with these things, even if they were legal, but the fact is that they’re not, and there’s no reason for them to be.

Likewise with assault weapons. The idea that anyone would need a machine that can kill as quickly and as efficiently as Loughner was able to last Saturday is absurd. We need to return to the assault weapons ban. The mere mention of banning any kind of gun sends many Americans into a tizzy, and you start to hear all kinds of irrational justifications repeated, like, “They want to ban ALL our guns!” “We need to be armed to the teeth in case we have to overthrow a tyrannical government,” etc. To drive this home, gun fanciers will carry guns conspicuously to political rallies, offering no more justification for the menacing display than, “It’s my right to carry one, so I’m carrying one.”

Apparently not all conservatives think it’s rational to carry guns to political rallies. Republican Representative Peter King of New York plans to introduce a bill that bans the carrying of guns within 100 feet of any member of Congress. Because, he says, how can politicians do their jobs while worrying about their own physical safety? Yes, how indeed? However, Mr. King would do well to recall that there’s already a law against shooting people in the head and otherwise murdering. Odds are that people like Jared Loughner aren’t going to consider the law when getting within 100 feet of anyone, politician or not.

Guns are the problem. They’re too easy to get, and too easy to distribute. Jared Loughner did not break the law when purchasing his gun or his ammunition. Even though he’d been dismissed from college for apparent mental problems, his name didn’t show up on any database that red-flagged him as a possible threat. And even if it had, he could still purchase guns at gun shows, where such background checks aren’t even required. It should be harder to get a gun than it is, and that’s what the mess in Arizona has shown us all too clearly.

The NRA has successfully conflated gun control with outright gun bans. They’re two different concepts, but to hear the NRA and its disciples say it, there’s no difference. No one is seriously talking about banning all guns, but too few of us are talking about controlling access to guns. We need to renew the assault weapons ban. We need to perform background checks on everyone who tries to buy a gun. And we need to end the gun show loophole. Guns are machines designed for one purpose: killing. For that reason, it only makes sense that we hold them to a higher standard, and make it harder to get them. Our politicians are too willing to cave to NRA pressure and thus make guns far more available to everyone.

A less toxic political atmosphere would help with our national debate, but only improving our gun laws will improve our gun laws. As easy as it is for politicians to stand up for the NRA, do they also find it that easy to stand up for the next Jared Lee Loughner? It’s not enough to condemn violence. We're well overdue to do something about it.

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