Tucson: The Real Questions

We at the Progressive Policy Institute are heartsick over the senseless attack Saturday on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, which also claimed the lives of six people, including a nine-year-old girl. Not only is Gabby our friend, she is an exemplar of the pragmatic progressivism that puts country before party. We pray for her recovery, and grieve for those who will never recover from this rampage.

As if this tragedy were not bad enough, some pundits have disgraced themselves by using it to score political points and vindicate their own particular stance. Thus, we're instructed that the attack was the inevitable result of a climate of hostility created by the Tea Party, or Sarah Palin, or anti-immigration groups in Arizona. There's no evidence this is true, but political gladiators apparently can't help themselves.

We've refrained from commenting until now in hopes of learning more about the motives of the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner. It seems he suffers from severe mental illness and was animated by his own inner demons, rather than "vitriol" in the atmosphere.

The political finger-pointing that has followed the shooting has been revolting. It's not too early to start grappling with some of the pertinent questions this tragedy actually raises. We'd highlight three:

First, why is it so easy for mentally disturbed individuals to acquire handguns in America? The gun shop that sold Loughner the semiautomatic Glock 19 apparently ran a background check. Why did it not turn up the fact that the suspect had recently been booted out of a community college for his erratic and disruptive behavior? Surely more rigorous checks are in order and don't impair the basic right to gun ownership.

And what public purpose is served by allowing citizens to buy high-capacity magazines more suitable for war than self-protection? These were covered under the ban on assault weapons passed on President Clinton's watch, which has since lapsed. Let's hope the Tucson massacre gives fresh impetus to reinstating it.

Second, how is it that we lack the legal tools to protect society against mentally unhinged people before they turn violent? Most people with serious mental illnesses aren't dangerous, but some are. Obviously, it's hard to assess such risks in advance. Yet when people exhibit patterns of bizarre and sociopathic behavior -- as did the alleged suspect in Tucson, and as did Seung-Hui Cho, who massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 -- they shouldn't simply be left to their own devices. Determining how to preempt the potential for violence entails careful thought and a delicate calibration of individual rights and public safety. But society can't simply look the other way as individuals descend into madness.

Third, will this attack result in erecting new barriers between elected representatives and the people? As we have seen since 9/11, elected officials have a tendency to overreact to acts of violence, erecting elaborate and costly security shields against low-probability threats. Will Members of Congress now demand bodyguards and be enveloped in security cocoons like the president? If the Tucson attack leads to a greater separation between politicians and those who elect them, it will have dealt a serious blow to our democracy.