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

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."