The shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona on Saturday has energized two interconnected national debates.
The first issue is gun control. Arizona may have the least-restrictive gun ownership laws in the country. This event may be a catalyst for changing that fact, but already the second-amendment camp is setting up a hue and cry that someone is going to take their guns away. Americans love their guns, and few are willing to give up their second amendment right to keep and bear arms. This fact seems not to register on a large segment of society, typically associated with the radical right, which brings up the second debate.
The second, and arguably more important, issue is the tenor of political discourse in this country. The center has been disappearing. As more and more right-wing commentators appeared in the media, and their rhetoric escalated, those on the left, who sometimes agreed with them, had to choose a side while the gulf between left and right steadily widened.
No one argues that the young man accused of the shooting is anything but a nut case, nor should they; however, the fact that Americans allow mentally ill people to live in mainstream society has a bearing on both issues. A person whose public record makes it fairly clear to a lay audience that he or she is “not all there” (to use a politically incorrect phrase) is allowed to live with the rest of us. Court battles have been fought to give such people that right. Consider that Jared Loughner was completely within his rights to be where he was when he opened fire.
In Arizona, the only requirement for owning a handgun is that a person be 18 years old or have a parent’s permission. Arizona does not require any permit at all to carry a firearm openly. Loughner broke a law if he concealed his weapon, but no one stopped to ask if this young man was competent to own a firearm. Clearly the results of allowing him to do so were sub-optimal.
As for the tone of political rhetoric, most on the right, including Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, both of whom have used words like “target” and “hit list” and other violent metaphors and allusions in public statements have adamantly denied that their rhetoric could have had any influence on this event. As a defense, many point to the perceived mental illness of the suspect, but this mental illness is precisely what made their inflammatory speech so dangerous.
While Beck or Palin may be able to make my blood boil, as a stable member of society, I am unlikely to pursue “second amendment remedies,” in the words of tea party candidate Sharron Angle. The trouble comes when mental instability, lenient gun laws and hostile political rhetoric with violent allusions intersect as they did on Saturday.
The right has continued to defend its use of harsh rhetoric and claim it had nothing to do with this young man’s attempt to assassinate a member of congress. This is a pity. They have also continued to speculate that “the left” will use this as an opportunity to take away their guns. These people claim to love their country. Do they love it enough to practice restraint?