The Tucson Tragedy, Political Divisions and Gun Laws in Arizona

By: Ayensa Millan

Reflecting on the Tucson tragedy of January 8, 2011, two questions have come to the fore and should be discussed. First, has the divisiveness and heated rhetoric of American politics contributed to this incident? And, second, should we be considering changes to our gun laws?

Within the last decade, politics in the United States have been brewing anger and division in our communities.  This division has created a huge partisan divide and is preventing government from moving forward and repairing the economic and social issues facing our nation.  Though the virus of extreme partisanship has afflicted the nation generally, in comparison, Arizona’s contagion has reached epidemic proportions.[1]

As unfortunate and heartbreaking as the Tucson shooting was, it came to no surprise to many Arizonans.  While it is unknown what sparked a troubled and unsettled young Jared Lee Loughner, the political atmosphere in Arizona has been richly primed with incendiary rhetoric for years.[2]  Arizona has long been known for its controversial legislation and many of those laws appear to have been created for no reason other than to antagonize, stir prejudice, or stoke the flames of political divide.[3][4][5] Loughner perpetrated a mass shooting that left 6 people dead and put 13 others in the hospital.[6] While 19 people were caught in the attack, the main target was Democratic Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords.[7] Giffords was shot in the head at point blank range and today battles for recovery.[8] It is not far-fetched to assume that the motivation for his actions were the result of a twisted political ideology.[9]

A few years ago, a personal friend and mentor, who played a huge role in changing Arizona politics during the era of the civil rights movement, told me that “the political climate in Arizona has to get much worse, before we begin to see any real change.”  Does a bloodbath in a supermarket parking lot qualify as “much worse?”  I’d like to believe that it does, and that we will begin to see real change in Arizona’s political forums.  However, realistically, even this terrible tragedy is unlikely to bring the changes that we need.  The priorities of our legislature and our laws are not where they should be.  For example, instead of finding responsible solutions to a difficult economic period, the Arizona legislature has focused on bills that require Doctors to become federal immigration inspectors.[10]  While people are dying because State Medicare cuts preclude life-saving transplants, the legislature has focused on passing less restrictive gun laws that allow people like Loughner to easily obtain, carry and conceal weapons in public places. [11][12].

This tragedy should also bring us together to at least discuss the effectiveness and prudence of our current gun laws.  Although the Federal government and States like Arizona have ardently protected individual gun rights for many years, it wasn’t until recently that the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on whether the Constitution even contains an individual right to gun ownership.[13] In that decision, the Supreme Court held that the right to “bear arms” does allow “law abiding” individuals to possess guns for self-defense.[14] Since this decision, there has been an even stronger trend towards protecting individual gun rights. Even in the wake of the Tucson tragedy and other mass-shootings across the nation, this trend is unlikely to change and calls for more restrictive gun laws will likely be stifled.[15] Consequently, dangerous, unstable, and ideologically twisted people—whom have previously been labeled “law abiding” – will continue to enjoy easy access to guns.

When a tragedy like the shooting in Tuscon occurs, the natural reaction is to look for explanations so we can prevent the same thing from happening again. During this period of reflection, it is important that we are able to be critical of our laws and of our political processes and discussions. Whether our not we ultimately change these things, we must be able to question them and open our beliefs to alternative points of view.


[1] See Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona – poster child for the new radical right?, THE HILL, Jan. 31, 2011, http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/arizona/politics/article_a0385710-34c2-11e0-9a4f-001cc4c03286.html.
[2], Id.
[3] See Associated Press, Bill Requiring Hospitals to Check Immigration Status in Arizona Causes Concern, FOX NEWS LATINO, Feb. 15, 2011, http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2011/02/15/arizona-require-hospitals-check-citizenship-er-ice-immigrants/
[4] Howard Fischer, Bill to rule out abortions based on gender, race advances, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE, Feb. 9, 2011, http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/arizona/politics/article_a0385710-34c2-11e0-9a4f-001cc4c03286.html
[5] Arizona House OKs Bill Requiring Presidential Candidates to Provide Birth Certificate, FOXNEWS.COM, April 22, 2010, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/04/22/arizona-house-oks-requiring-presidential-candidates-provide-birth-certificate/.
[6] Associated Press, Major Milestone: Wounded Giffords Moves Arms, Legs, AZFAMILY.COM, January 13, 2011, http://www.azfamily.com/news/national/113444919.html.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Associated Press, Shooting Suspect’s Nihilism Rose with Isolation, AZFAMILY.COM, January 9, 2011,  http://www.azfamily.com/news/national/113168809.html.
[10] Associated Press,supra note 3.
[11] Associated Press, Ariz. Cuts Transplant Coverage; Two Patients Die, CBS NEWS, Jan. 6, 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/01/06/health/main7219326.shtml.
[12] Kevin Kiley, Arizona’s concealed-weapon law takes effect, ARIZONA REPUBLIC, Feb. 16 2011, http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/2010/07/29/20100729arizona-concealed-weapons-law.html.
[13] Heller v. District of Columbia, 128 S. Ct. 2783, 2793, 2817 (2008).
[14] Id.
[15] Kathleen Hennessey and Lisa Mascaro, Tucson Tragedy Unlikely to Advance Gun Control Legislation, L.A. TIMES, January 14, 2011,  http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-gun-control-20110114,0,1261398.story?page=2.

4 thoughts on “The Tucson Tragedy, Political Divisions and Gun Laws in Arizona

  1. I think everyone can agree in hindsight that Loughner was a troubled person. However, I do not understand where gun control becomes an issue here. I do not think that anyone can say with a straight face that, had Arizona employed stricter gun control laws, Loughner would not have committed the crime.

    I completely agree that people who are designated as being psychologically unstable should not be allowed to have any deadly weapon. The federal background check that all people must fill out when purchasing a gun from a dealer addresses this issue. The real issue is, how do you identify people who are psychologically unstable? Should we subject people to psychological tests whenever someone at the workplace or school identifies another person as psychologically unstable?

    In this case, many of Loughner’s classmates described him as weird, and one woman even went so far as to say something to the effect of, “I will see him on the news for shooting up a school”. But even where one woman’s predictions may have been correct, can you imagine how many people would be subject to psychological testing if one person, or several in collusion, decided to notify others that “someone weirded them out” or “is a psycho”? School or workplace bullying would reach a whole new level.

    To reiterate, the real issue is identifying those with psychological issues that would make them ineligible to purchase a firearm, and this has always been the issue.(e.g. Columbine, Nebraksa mall shootings, Virginia Tech). That being said, it is a tough decision to make. Should we crush the individual right to bear arms? Should we effectively crush the freedom of expression, by subjecting people with “weird” views to psychological testing?

    Surely there is some middle ground, and that is something I would like to read about.

  2. I agree with Neal insofar as more restrictive gun laws would not have prevented this tragedy from occurring.

    However I don’t think the federal background check is the answer either. I’ve read so many stories of how on several occasions Loughner displayed severely psychotic behavior at home and in school. This person, this thing, should have been institutionalized long ago with no access to the many freedoms of the civilized world, which is exactly who it should be reserved for: civilized people. The federal background check should not be a psych eval., it should check for felonies.

  3. While I am not a fan of AZ gun laws and loopholes, I believe “the divisiveness and heated rhetoric of American politics contributed to this incident.” As a nation and a state, we need to return to civility and find ways to compromise and work together. Most of us have similar ends in site, we just disagree on the means to achieving those goals.
    Thanks for opening this dialog Ayensa.

  4. In addition to scrutinizing gun laws, Arizona needs to seriously reconsider budget cuts to mental health programs. Heated political rhetoric did not contribute to this incident. Jared Loughner was obsessed with Rep. Giffords going back to a 2007 town hall in which he felt she inadequately answered a bizarre question of his about the meaning of words. That’s pre-Tea Party, pre-Obama. In the words of President Obama: “…if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.” Jared Loughner’s delusions find no origin in political discourse, but in the sad fact that he was not receiving treatment despite his demonstrable symptoms of schizophrenia.

    Blaming right-wing rhetoric or Sarah Palin is a canard that distracts from the real, important work of improving state mental health resources and passing sensible gun control legislation. Call, e-mail, or mail Jan Brewer and members of the Arizona legislature and urge them to reverse course.

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