Guns of Arizona

Published : Feb 11, 2011 00:00 IST



The near-fatal shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is an instance of Far Right adventurism and intolerance to centrist policies in the United States.

Not alone for gold and silver Is Arizona great. But with graves of heroes sleeping, All the land is consecrate!

- Margaret Rowe Clifford, Arizona's State Anthem, 1915.

JUST after 10 a.m. on January 8, 2011, a man strode across the parking lot of a Safeway grocery store and opened fire with his 9mm Glock semi-automatic pistol. The man, Jared Lee Loughner, fired into a small crowd that had gathered around Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (Democrat who represents Arizona's 8th Congressional District). Five people died almost instantly. The Congresswoman was shot through the head and, at the time of writing, remains in critical care. A nine-year-old girl, Christina Taylor Green, died at a local hospital. Several people were injured, some in their brave struggle to stop Loughner from continuing with his rampage.

The news shocked the country. Gun violence is not unusual in the United States, largely because of the easy availability of all manner of guns. The National Rifle Association (NRA), the gun lobby, the gun manufacturers and, mainly, the Republican Party are hardened against any kind of restrictions on gun purchases. The assault rifle ban, enacted in 1994, expired in 2004 and has languished ever since. Of all the States, Arizona has the most promiscuous gun laws; one is allowed to carry a concealed pistol without a permit (in January, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a Bill that repealed a law that required permits for concealed weapons). An instant background check of gun purchases is considered a farce. No wonder the Mexican government bemoans this lack of regulations; Mexican gangs routinely buy their weapons in Arizona, carry them across the border (where privately held guns are largely illegal), and create the mayhem that has disrupted life in northern Mexico.

But, as the saying goes, guns do not kill people; people kill people. Why did Loughner shoot Gabrielle Giffords and the others? Exercising his right to remain silent, Loughner is saying nothing. Material he has left on the Internet is instructive, but not conclusive. There is one YouTube video where he lays out his manifesto. Loughner opens with a ramble on Consciousness, fodder for those who want to paint him as insane, but then he moves on to a long tirade about the world. His target is the government and its malevolence. Fondness for the Gold Standard is coupled with fears of being brainwashed. (The Gold Standard notion remains a commonplace demand of those who champion the ideas of Ludwig von Mises, one of the intellectual godheads of neo-liberalism).

Loughner's litany is familiar fodder from the Far Right as well as the intellectual Near Right. The point that the government is trying to control English grammar structure sounded familiar to David Lynn Miller, a conspiracy theorist with Far Right proclivities, who told The New York Times that Loughner had probably been on my website, which has been up for about 11 years. The government does control the schools, and the schools determine the grammar and language we use. And then it is all reinforced by newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and everything we do in society. Loughner's education probably came from the Far Right continent on the Internet. It did not help this man that he lived in a State that had become the poster child of Far Right adventurism.

Arizona shares a border with Mexico and is one of the ports of call for migrants from Mexico and Central and South America (as well as Asia) who cross into the U.S. Fierce anti-immigrant sentiment has been a feature of the State's political rhetoric for generations, but it has been ramped up in recent decades, mainly by the Republican Party.

After the shooting, Pima County's sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, called his State the mecca for racism and bigotry. Dupnik is no liberal: he opposes the harsh immigration laws because they are impossible to implement. Dupnik noted in The Wall Street Journal last year: Pima County, where I am sheriff, shares 123 miles of border with Mexico. Patrolling this area for illegal immigrants is like trying to keep water from passing through a sieve. Anti-immigrant sentiment is without a programme: it escalates rhetoric without providing any realistic policy outlet. It is the kind of political volcano the only release of which is rancour and violence.

Along the border, some ranchers have taken to vigilante violence against the immigrants. For instance, since 2000, Roger and Don Barnett of Douglas, Arizona, have been embroiled in a case brought by 16 Mexican plaintiffs who allege that the brothers held them at gunpoint and assaulted them (vide this author's article The Hunt for Mexicans, Frontline, June 23, 2000). In 2009, Judge John Roll ruled that the case ( Vicente vs Barnett) could go to trial. Death threats against Roll briefly earned him protection from the U.S. Marshals Service. Roll's wise jurisprudence pushed back against the lawlessness that had taken hold in the State as a consequence of the toxic politics of anti-immigration. On January 8, after church, Roll went to say hello to his friend Gabrielle Giffords. He was one of the five who died on the scene.

With no way to actually slow down the migration short of vigilante violence, the Republican Party went after Ethnic Studies. A Bill pushed by Governor Brewer has made it illegal to teach about the lives of Mexican Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans. The law smothers an attempt by educators to broaden the horizon of their students. In a covert move, the Arizona Department of Education told school districts that teachers who spoke heavily accented or ungrammatical English must be removed from the classroom. A typical reaction from educators came from Kent Scribner, superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District: Student achievement and growth should inform teacher evaluations, not their accents.

Centrist leader

Gabrielle Giffords opposed the harsh anti-immigrant tenor of the politics of her State. Representing a district that voted for the Republicans in the last presidential election, she was very centrist in her legislative history. Against the anti-immigrant legislation, she nonetheless supported the deployment of more border guards and the National Guard on the border. Against bailouts of the auto industry, and in two minds on the stimulus, she eventually voted for the Barack Obama administration's economic proposals. She stood on two liberal rocks (firmly in support of women's rights and solar energy), and had the charisma to appease her constituency that did not agree with her on many of these issues. The Right disliked her intuitively: she was against gun control laws, and yet the NRA gave her the very low D+ score (an A being the highest score, F the lowest).

What raised the ire of the Right was her vote for the health care reform Bill that had the imprimatur of the Obama White House. The Bill galvanised the Right in a way that nothing has before. At rallies across the country against the Bill and against Obama in particular, people began to arrive fully armed. Part of their arsenal is a defence of their interpretation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the right to bear arms).

On April 19, 2010, for instance, militia members held a Second Amendment March in Washington, D.C. Larry Pratt, who heads the Gun Owners of America, told the crowd: We're in a war. The other side knows they are at war, because they started it. They are coming for our freedom, for our money, for our kids, for our property. They are coming for everything because they are a bunch of socialists.

Nevada politician Sharron Angel upped the ante with her comment the next month on how people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies, namely gun violence. In July, Joyce Kaufman, a talk radio host, told a Tea Party rally in Florida that she was thankful for the Second Amendment. If ballots don't work, bullets will. In the midterm election of 2010, Republican superstar Sarah Palin not only threw in her lot with the Tea Party Express, but also proposed the defeat of 20 Democratic members of Congress in districts that otherwise lean Republican. On her Facebook page, Palin ran a graphic image of the country with gunsights on these 20 districts, one of which was the 8th district in Arizona.

In March 2010, Gabrielle Giffords went on news channel MSNBC, where she took exception to Sarah Palin's rhetoric: 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 gunsight over our district. And when people do that, they've gotta realise there's consequences to that action.

Sarah Palin removed the graphic after the shooting. Her adviser said that the image was not of gunsights, but surveyor's marks. On November 4, however, Palin tweeted, Remember months ago bullseye' icon used 2 target the 20 Obamcare-lovin' incumbent seats? We won 18 out of 20 (90% success rate; T'aint bad). One of those who didn't lose was Gabrielle Giffords.

Sarah Palin's silence after the shooting was soon broken. She released a video statement on her Facebook page. She said she was sorry for the shooting by the deranged apparently apolitical criminal. She then went on to criticise the journalists and pundits for manufacturing a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. The idea of a blood libel comes from a 12th century anti-Semitic idea that Jews would kill Christian children for their Passover rituals. The ridiculous idea has had a much longer shelf life than it should. It appears on and off in the dark corridors of anti-Semitic vaults. If Sarah Palin did not know its origins, then that says much about the studied ignorance of the American Right. If she did, then it is very disturbing.

On Sarah Palin's Facebook page, her fan Mark Kerr wrote, Go, Sarah! Giffords deserved to die. She was a liberal, a Jew, a health care reformer, an enemy of the NRA, pro-abortion and pro-gay. What happened to the map? One down and 16 to go. This is the kind of ghoulish politics that is enabled by Sarah Palin and the Far Right. The Far Right Washington Times (on January 12) once more delved into the tragic history of European anti-Semitism, saying that doubts about Sarah Palin are simply the latest round of an ongoing pogrom against conservative thinkers (pogrom is a Yiddish derivation from a Russian word, meaning the devastation or destruction of the Jewish community after a directed massacre).

Gabrielle Giffords won in 2010 by only 4,000 votes. Her opponent, Jesse Kelly, was backed to the hilt by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. An Iraq War veteran, Kelly ran advertisements with pictures of himself dressed in military fatigues and carrying an assault rifle. He held an event that matched the images on his advertisements, Get on Target for Victory in November; Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office: Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly. Sarah Palin bowed to Kelly, saying, I don't feel worthy of tying his combat boots. Intimations of violence were at the centre of his electoral campaign. As many as 1,34,124 people voted for him.

After the shooting, the Tea Party Nation's founder, Judson Phillips, offered his condemnation of the attack. Then he equivocated, While we need to take a moment to extend our sympathies to the families of those who died, we cannot allow the hard Left to do what it tried to do in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing. The allusion to Oklahoma is curious. In 1995, two Far Right American fascists bombed the Federal Building, killing 168 people. The first reaction from the media was that the attack had Middle East terrorism written all over it. When Timothy McVeigh was caught, it became clear that he was a member of the Michigan Militia and carried with him all the burdens of the Far Right. The media, finally, exposed the deep roots of the fascist Right within the U.S., but soon thereafter shed its interest. It seems that Phillips is worried that the media might once more turn its spotlight on that element, and it might find the ties that link that political substratum to the Tea Party. It is a miserable situation.

All eyes turned to Obama to pick up the pieces. He flew to Tucson for a memorial service and delivered a eulogy that reminded the country of his considerable oratorical gifts. Obama has two young daughters. The death of nine-year-old Christina struck him personally. Born on September 11, 2001, Christina felt that she was the other side of that tragedy, the hope for the future. Interested in public service, Christina went to meet her Congresswoman with her neighbour. Obama's speech drew on her life's ambition. Here was a young girl who was becoming aware of our democracy. She was off to meet her Congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism and vitriol that we adults all too often take for granted. It was a fitting tribute to a young girl, and it was a fitting rebuke to a divided country. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imaged it.

Gun shows

The shooting in Arizona came as a trial unfolded near my home. In Springfield, Massachusetts, the court heard arguments over the death of Christopher Bizilj (aged eight). Bizilj had gone to the Westfield Sportsmen's Club in 2008 for a gun show. His father, an emergency room doctor, filmed Christopher firing a Micro Uzi, whose recoil blew off half his head. The boy died shortly afterwards in a local hospital. The accident says a great deal about the culture of guns in the U.S. The government brought a case against the gun show organisers for allowing a boy to shoot an Uzi (the organiser was found not guilty). The father is not to be charged. It is reasonable for fathers to take their sons to shoot semi-automatic assault rifles.

After the Arizona shooting, gun sales in Arizona increased, including for the 9mm Glock used by Loughner. Greg Wolff, who owns Glockmeister, a gun store, told the press: Any time there is a mass shooting, you unfortunately get an uptick in sales. It's advertising. Any time this gets discussed in the media, more people see it. It's like a commercial. On January 15 and 16, just days after the shooting, the Pima County Fairgrounds hosted the Crossroads of the West Gun Show.

Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes when Obama and her congressional colleagues visited her hospital room. She is there largely because of the cool head of her 20-year-old intern Daniel Hernandez. A gay Latino man, Hernandez is everything that the Far Right despises.

If there are any heroes of the January 8 shooting, Daniel Hernandez is one of them. Perhaps, he is Arizona's future.

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