"Our democracy is a light, a beacon really, around the world because we affect change at the ballot box and not because of these outbursts of violence." ~ U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, March 25, 2010
We can describe Saturday's shooting rampage in Tucson as shocking, horrifying, and unthinkable; but no one -- no elected official, no media commentator, no opinion maker -- can truthfully say it was a surprise. It was not an isolated act, nor was it an aberration. Instead it was the latest tragic incident in a purposely-designed effort to inject violence into our political process.
This embrace of political violence has been part of far right wing ideology for decades, but was tamped down after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. It began to reemerge in 2008 with the Supreme Court's landmark Second Amendment decision in D.C. v. Heller. In that 5-4 ruling, Justice Scalia overturned 200+ years of jurisprudence and parroted the National Rifle Association's radical view of the Second Amendment, writing, "If... the Second Amendment right is no more than the right to keep and use weapons as a member of an organized militia... if, that is, the organized militia is the sole institutional beneficiary of the Second Amendment's guarantee -- it does not assure the existence of a 'citizens' militia' as a safeguard against tyranny."
This radical idea -- which completely ignores our Founders' tough response to armed insurrectionists during Shays' Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion -- flowered even further after the election of our first African American president in November 2008. It started with rhetoric (i.e., NRA leader Wayne LaPierre telling CPAC "the guys with the guns make the rules" in March 2009), then slowly devolved into petty violence (i.e., militia leader Mike Vanderboegh blogging, "To all modern Sons of Liberty... Break their windows. Break them NOW," after the health care vote in March 2010), then more serious violence (i.e., the stomping of Lauren Valle at a Rand Paul rally in October 2010, the planned attack on the Tides Foundation that was stopped in a shootout on I-580 in California), and now political murder.
It is the culmination of anti-democratic slogans like "Trigger the Vote," "It is time to water the tree of liberty," "Gather your armies," and "If ballots don't work, bullets will." It started years ago in gun shows and isolated corners of the Internet, but has been amplified and "mainstreamed" by the NRA and the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, and Michelle Bachmann. It was celebrated during Open Carry rallies across the country on April 19, 2010, including one across the river from the U.S. Capitol where protesters came to "step up to the edge" to "show [their] elected servants in DC and the state capitals that [they] will not stand by idly while their corruption, dishonesty, and outright violations of our country's founding principles destroy the American Republic." It is something that I predicted in my 2009 book, Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea, and that we at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence have been documenting on a weekly basis in our "Insurrectionism Timeline."
Indeed, it is no surprise that a mentally ill young man embraced this ideology, authoring deranged anti-government screeds like, "You don't have to accept the federalist laws... Read the United States of America's Constitution to apprehend all of the current treasonous laws." Or musing publicly, "I don't feel good: I'm ready to kill a police officer! I can say it." As Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik noted, "When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government... That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences."
Loughner's target in the shooting, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), was well aware that rhetoric could inspire violence. After her Tucson office was vandalized following her vote for health care reform in March 2010, she told MSNBC, "I think it's important for all leaders, not just leaders of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party... but community leaders... to say 'look, we can't stand for this.' This is a situation where they really need to realize that the rhetoric and firing people up and, you know, even things, for example, we're on Sarah Palin's targeted list. But the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. And when people do that, they've gotta' realize there's consequences to that action... I can say... that in the years that some of my colleagues have served -- 20, 30 years -- they've never seen it like this." She undoubtedly was again concerned when her opponent in the 2010 elections invited supporters to "Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."
Saturday wasn't even the first time that Rep. Giffords came face to face with a gun at a political event. In August 2009, at another one of her meet-and-greet events at a supermarket, a man with a "Don't Tread on Me" banner dropped a loaded, concealed handgun to the floor during an angry debate, spurring Giffords' staff to call police to the event.
Nor can we express surprise that an American who was clearly deranged was able to purchase two handguns and a high-capacity magazine from a Tucson gun store. There was no shortage of red flags in Jared Lee Loughner's background. In October 2007, he was cited by the Pima County Sheriff's Department for possession of drug paraphernalia. One year later, he faced a "local charge" in Marana Municipal Court. He was rejected when he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army after failing a drug test. Classmates of Loughner at Pima Community College described him as "obviously very disturbed" and a "troubled young man." One student recalled, "No one in... class would even sit next to him." Pima Community College suspended Loughner for conduct violations and he withdrew from the college in October 2010 after five instances of classroom or library disruptions that involved the campus police. The college sent a letter to Loughner's parents stating that if he wished to return to the school, he would have to "obtain a mental health clearance indicating, in the opinion of a mental health professional, his presence at the College does not present a danger to himself or others." If that wasn't enough, Loughner announced publicly on his MySpace page last month that he was ready to kill.
Yet in the NRA's America, Loughner was a "law-abiding citizen" and a legal gun purchaser. He passed an instant computerized background check at the Sportsman's Warehouse on November 30, 2010, which probably only took a few minutes. He was not a prohibited purchaser under the very narrow federal disqualifications for mental health -- Loughner had never been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution nor adjudicated as a "mental defective" by a court. And because there was no waiting period or actual background investigation of Loughner, none of his well-known psychiatric problems were looked at. Sadly, even had he failed a background check he could have purchased his guns from a "private seller" without undergoing a background check in more than 40 states, including Arizona. It's that easy. Arizona, which has some of the weakest gun laws in the country, even allows residents to carry loaded handguns in public without a permit (and therefore without any type of screening). Finally, the NRA, by successfully lobbying against the renewal of the federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994-2004), even made sure that Loughner would have access to high-capacity ammunition magazines (greater than 10 rounds) -- in this case a 33-round clip which he used to devastating effect in Tucson.
To say that America's gun laws facilitated these murders, therefore, would be an understatement.
So now we see what a "Second Amendment remedy" looks like in practice. As a consequence, we have lost federal judge John M. Roll, 63; Gabriel Zimmerman, 30; Dorothy Morris, 76; Dorwin Stoddard, 76; Phyllis Schneck, 79; and, most tragically, nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, who went to Safeway on Saturday to learn more about government and public service. Fourteen others lie wounded with their lives torn apart, including Rep. Giffords.
Our democracy has also suffered a tremendous blow. Once again, an individual has decided for himself that our government is "tyrannical," thereby depriving the rest of us of our most basic rights as Americans. It's long past time that we remembered that health care reform and financial regulation are policy choices to be debated, not declarations of civil war.
If our leaders -- of all political persuasions -- once again fail to find their voices and speak out in no uncertain terms against insurrectionist ideology and the weak gun laws that routinely arm America's deranged and disgruntled, then Tucson will mark the beginning, and not the end, of America's flirtation with anarchy.