It is the Right Time to Examine Our Political Culture, Gun Laws

Monday, January 10, 2011 - 09:51 AM

Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was doing her job, and doing it damn well, on Saturday morning when a gunman lodged a bullet in her brain, assassinated Judge John Roll, and murdered and injured nearly a dozen bystanders.  She was doing exactly what we want our representatives to do: coming to her constituents, listening to them, being part of their lives and making them central to her work.

She was paying tribute to the First Amendment of our Constitution.  Then, a deranged man who took the Second Amendment to a lunatic extreme, shattered this democratic morning in Tucson, Arizona.

We all know, in our hearts, that there are dangers in an open society like ours.  Especially our elected officials must feel that awareness that we ask them to make unpopular choices, at times, then walk with us as our peers.  We don’t want them surrounded by bodyguards or hidden behind iron gates.  It is important that we have access to those who govern and represent us.

Their safety – and by extension, our own safety – comes not from security ropes and magnetometers, but from a society that sets rules and expectations: that we don’t urge or tolerate violence; that we may scream and shout, but not punch or tackle; that guns are not a solution to our political problems.  And these expectations – which create a workable democratic society – need to be reinforced by our laws, our rhetoric and the example of our leaders.

Unfortunately, right now our laws are falling short.  The assault weapons ban was allowed to lapse in 2004 and the Obama administration retreated from seeking its reauthorization in 2010. The fact that this commonsense legislation dissolved is part of a bigger push that has increased the presence of guns at schools, churches, town hall meetings and event Starbucks. The laws that allow a mentally-imbalanced man to gain such easy access to a rapid-firing weapon, with an extended magazine, need to be revisited.

Similarly, our rhetoric is failing us. Let’s recall Senate candidate, and Tea Party favorite, Sharron Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies.”  When she commented that “if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around,” she wasn’t telling anyone to open fire on a Tucson crowd, but she wasn’t telling them not to either.

She isn’t alone.  Forget Sarah Palin’s now-famous “Don’t retreat, instead - reload” for a moment. Mainstream conservative pundits lace their language with violent imagery to an obsessive degree. The Department of Homeland Security has warned us about the rise in domestic right-wing extremism. And when politicians have tried to address these issues, as then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi had, they are then mocked by equally hateful rhetoric from the right.

Which brings us to the failures of leadership — and not just political leadership. Yes, it would be great if Sarah Palin would join Nancy Pelosi in denouncing this toxic language. If those two shared a stage, much of America would pay attention. But this isn’t about any one leader. It’s about those in authority taking active steps to change this pattern of violence. 

Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes of Fox News, for example, could have toned down the rhetoric after George Tiller, a courageous Kansas doctor, was gunned down. Fox viewers knew the victim as “Dr. Tiller, Baby-Killer,” and Fox executives could have decided it was time to temper the toxins their host were spewing.  Instead, we saw a Glenn Beck fan load his weapons with guns to pay a visit to one of Beck’s favorite targets, the non-profit Tides Foundation

Leadership isn’t pointing the finger at someone else. It’s acknowledging that something is seriously wrong when a 9-year-old is murdered, and asking whether your platform – be in a political podium, twitter feed or popular channel – can somehow reduce the chance that action would happen again.

There’s an instinct among some to say now, in a tragic moment, is not the time to talk about solutions. I’m reminded of Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker commentary shortly after the Virgina Tech shooting, in which he compared that sentiment to the idea that “the aftermath of a terrorist attack is the wrong time to talk about security, the aftermath of a death from lung cancer is the wrong time to talk about smoking and the tobacco industry, and the aftermath of a car crash is the wrong time to talk about seat belts.”

There’s also an instinct to say that the gunman was just a murderer, a lunatic, as though that ends the conversation. I recall Bob Herbert’s column after the Virginia Tech massacre in which he noted that there are patterns to these incidents that we’d be foolish to ignore.

Unfortunately, since 2007, we have not had a mature discussion about guns in our culture. Since Dr. Tiller’s death, we haven’t addressed hate rhetoric. And unfortunately, our failings in legislation, rhetoric and leadership have failed Judge Roll and the victims of Saturday’s shooting. And these failures are part of why we, as a nation, are collectively praying for Representative Giffords at this moment.

Prayer is an appropriate, but not a sufficient, reaction to Saturday’s event. Fortunately, we as a nation are equipped with the necessary tools: the ability to pass legislation, to engage in and transform political discourse and to support a robust political process.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), who came to Congress after her husband was killed by gun violence, has already promised to suggest legislative responses. MoveOn, putting aside its partisan program, is circulating a petition asking for an “end to overt and implied appeals to violence in our political debate.” 

Until we start talking about remedies, we’re going to see this pattern continue. And the result will not only be more deaths, but will be a dangerous chilling effect on our political process. This shooting followed threats to Representative Giffords and Judge Roll. Those threats, the presence of guns at Town Hall meetings, and the assassination this weekend all have a negative impact on our political discourse. They will make a good person think twice about going into politics.  They will make a good politician think twice about making a hard, unpopular choice. And they could chase Congress off of our corner, which would be a great loss for all of us.

So when you pray, pray not only for the health of the victims, but for the courage to participate in the hard work and tough discussions our society must have to change this pattern.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."


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Comments [15]

mitch from Manhattan

I have been robbed 13 times, all but two with guns; from 45's to sawed off shotguns. I do not want a gun myself because I would have killed a number of people by now during said robberies, and maybe not be alive had I been involved in a shootout. I like NYC laws that make it difficult to own a gun. If it is easy for good guys it will be easy for the bad ones as well.

Jan. 18 2011 10:51 AM
Rob W from Levittown, NY

Guns don't kill people, bullets do!

The gunman wouldn't have been able to kill so many people from so far away with so little effort if he couldn't go into his local walmart and buy what he needed that was designed just for this purpose.

Jan. 11 2011 08:03 PM
ajm from Spokane

The only way gun control will work (maybe) is if all guns were banned in the world and destroyed and we all know that will not happen. We also know that criminals will never obey any kind of law re gun laws.

So, in saying that, the only logical thing to do is to utilize the 2nd amendment.

Lets face it. The gun control argument is a discussion between the "emotional" camp vs the "logical" camp and logic always wins.

Jan. 10 2011 08:49 PM
Justin Krebs from NYC

@Karol, thanks for joining the conversation. I'm not out to "score political points." I'm out to suggest that there are ways to reduce senseless gun death in this country.

I'm honestly much more interested in your solutions than your critique.

Jan. 10 2011 02:10 PM
Karol from NYC

Also, if you're going to blame words, you seem to have overlooked all the violent words used by liberals, including Barack Obama (they come with the knives you come with a gun). Why is that? Liberals don't want to get into comparing words, especially when we've got 8 years of rhetoric directed at Bush to add to your list.

Jan. 10 2011 02:01 PM
Karol from NYC

I'm really disappointed that you've gone the blaming rhetoric route. It's plainly wrong that rhetoric played a role in this shooting and liberals repeating it en masse won't change that. This is not the time to score political points against politicians you don't like.

Jan. 10 2011 01:58 PM
Tom Davis from Monroe Twp, NJ

First, I should like to address the remarks made by Justin Krebs. You are a self-proclaimed liberal and your remarks are to be expected. Wrong, but expected. What gives you the right to call her "Gabby"? Even I, a Christian Constitutitutional Conservative, i.e. not of her political persuasion always used and will use her proper name, Gabrielle. My emails to her were always polite but I disagreed with her stance on Amnesty and her posture in alignment with Pelosi.It IS important that we have access to our representatives. We seldom get the access needed. You are absolutely correct that guns are not the solution to out political problems, NOW; They were in 1775-1783 and none other than Thomas Jefferson noted that guns in the hands of FREE men would protect us from the tyranny of government. Our laws are too many but are overreaching, not falling short. The laws DO NOT allow a mentally imbalanced man to gain easy access to any weapon, Careless people allow that to happen. Did you really expect to hear any politician to warn another not to open fire in a crowd? Now, Young man, if you are writer as it appears you may be, Do you not recognize the use of metaphor when you see or hear it? Irresponsible people like you and other liberals fan the flames set by yourselves or others. The Right thinking folks are not extremists, they are doing a balancing act to right the ship of state which has lost its rudder in stormy seas. I am skipping a lot to get to this: "We saw a Glenn Beck fan 'load his weapons with guns' to pay a visit...?" You talk much say little and nothing of value.
Guns do not KILL; People do. Last point, Dr. Tiller was not courageous unless you call killing a fetus courageous. Just another murder!

Jan. 10 2011 01:53 PM

The reason the conversation becomes about the gun rather than the mental condition of the assailant, is that ANYONE, regardless of his/her mental condition can carry a gun. In Tucson, they can carry concealed weapons into a bar or any public place. Even if there is a law to prevent mentally ill or imbalanced people from buying or carrying guns, it is a long process to finally, legally affirm that someone is ill or imbalanced. In spite of the fact of this assailant's history of sullen and hateful (anti-social) behavior, nothing was done to prevent his buying or owning this weapon. Which, by the way, I have read this weapon was outlawed for ten years.

Jan. 10 2011 01:26 PM
Bob Myshkin from Bradenton, FL

This tragic event will only encourage every wacko in the country to move to AZ, buy a full auto assault weapon, and then go home to gain their own moment of infamy.It will be like a vector of contagion for a new flu epidemic. Congress may now be inspired to vote with its conscience instead of with what the NRA tells it. My empathy with the victims and their families.

Jan. 10 2011 01:19 PM
Calls'em from Here, There & Everywhere

Here are just a few examples of left wing and or liberal Democrat words and pictures of violence that 80%+ of the mainstream media ignore and that NPR & WNYC almost always ignore:

(1) Quote from President 0bama on 6-18-08 – “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun!”

(2) A blog story with 50+ pictures calling for the arrest and or murder or President Bush

(3) Left wing strategist and friend of many in the White House calls for violent revolution – something she has been calling for almost 50 years

(4) The libs themselves put a "bulls eye" on Congresswoman Gifford for being too conservative. Hate speech or political free speech? Let's make sure that the libs don't use this incident to clamp down on our God given freedoms.

Jan. 10 2011 01:16 PM
david from huntington

Although I understand the political ramifications of this senseless act . I can only wonder why when a mentally ill person commits a crime with a gun the conversation never seems to be about mental health. The gun issue always trumps the reason why the act happened in the first place. Instead of speaking about why this person or any person would do such a thing we focus on the method. If this person could not get a gun he would have used another method. If he had run into the crowd with a car no one would have suggested banning cars , even for the mentally ill.This preoccupation with gun control is a great disservice to the real issue. Maybe people should be looking in to prescription drugs and how many of these shootings may have been caused by them. I recently saw a commercial for a drug whose side affects were suicidal thoughts. When is this country going to wake up. We treat all of our illnesses with drugs that mask the symptoms instead of addressing the cause. Funny how we treat societal issues the same way.

Jan. 10 2011 12:57 PM
Arline from New York

Guns, guns, guns. Whatever the nature or location of an incident: a Columbine school massacre, a public political forum in Arizona, a deli or bank robbery in Manhattan, the weapon of choice is almost always a gun. The Constitution as a tool for maintaining a civil and democratic society, but we can't lose sight of the rights of those endangered by individuals who are deranged, angry, looking for retribution or fame and who will use a gun to destroy the lives of innocent others who do not threaten them. Allow legitimate hunters and law enforcement officers to carry guns but let's get real and impose the tightest imaginable restrictions on and penalties for obtaining or using a gun. The founding fathers couldn't anticipate what our society would be like or require hundreds of years into the future; that's why it has needed to be amended.

Jan. 10 2011 12:22 PM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

Have you read the last SCOTUS opinion on the Second Amendment? They struck down the D.C and Chicago gun ownership restrictions making it clear that a strict interpretation of the 2nd Amendment will hold in the future!! Mayors, police chiefs, law administrators of all stripes cringed at the announcement - as well they should.
A strict interpretation of the 2nd Amendment enables ALL citizens to KEEP and BEAR arms. Forget AZ's concealed carry restrictions...They could be upheld as the law of the land!
We need to re-think the 2nd Amendment.

Jan. 10 2011 11:44 AM

Wholeheartedly agree we must make it more difficult to BUY guns-leaving laws as is..WHAT?.. Who is the insane one letting the warped who truly desire a Chilling ineffectiveness to take over our political process succeed.

Jan. 10 2011 10:33 AM
Leah from Manhattan

I am shocked at the moral equivalence being assigned to political stridency (which we have always had and always will), and incitement to violence with guns, which is now coming almost exclusively from the right.

Have you seen or read some of the ads put out by Jesse Kelly, Rep. Giffords' opponent in the last election? No wonder Rep. Giffords felt physically threatened.

Slogans like "don't retreat, reload", "bullets not ballots" and "2nd Amendment remedies", combined with images of brandished weapons, are the problem here.

Politicians who incite violence this way are responsible for whoever - mentally stable or not - takes them up on their suggestions.

Jan. 10 2011 10:26 AM

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