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Politics & Prejudices

Crazy tolerance for guns

And for the rhetoric that tells people to aim and reload

... nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places ... or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. —U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, June 2008

She was hardworking, brilliant, attractive and vivacious, about everything you could want in a rising young political star. As a student, she'd won a Fulbright to study in Mexico, and gone on to earn a master's degree in regional planning.

She grew up to win a seat in Congress and win the hand of an astronaut. Gabrielle Giffords was born the very same day as our own Kwame Kilpatrick — June 8, 1970 — but except for the fact that both were ambitious, the resemblance pretty much stopped there.

She was from a fast-growing part of the country, a Democrat who survived this year's landslide to win a third-term in the U.S. House from a normally Republican part of Arizona.

Giffords' family was a truly 21st century one: bicoastal — her husband, U.S. Navy Captain Mark Kelly, is from New Jersey — and multicultural (she was Jewish, her husband, Christian).

They had demanding careers. He was scheduled to command the last-ever Space Shuttle flight this April, and they were raising his two children by a previous marriage. Their lives looked like an unfolding movie script: Robert Reich, who had been Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, said once, "I wouldn't be surprised if she's the first or second female president of the United States."

That's never going to happen now.

For as all the world knows, Gabrielle Giffords was drilled though the head last Saturday, as she was meeting with constituents on a street in Tucson, an event she called "Congress on Your Corner." The shooter seemed much like all the pathetic losers who turn guns on prominent people to try to give their own lives meaning.

Jared Loughner was a messed-up 22-year-old who had been booted out of community college for bizarre behavior. On websites he ranted incoherently about a supposed new currency and other issues that only he could understand. He seemed to read, with equal enthusiasm, Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx and Ayn Rand.

Last fall, they told him he couldn't come back to college until he brought a letter from a mental health professional saying that he wasn't a danger to himself or others.

Loughner apparently never even tried to get such a letter. He probably knew he had no chance of that. He could do something, though.

He could buy a gun. So on Nov. 30, he bought a Glock semi-automatic pistol at a place called Sportman's Warehouse in Tucson. Perfectly legal; no questions asked.

If anyone had looked on the Internet, they would have seen a video of him saying, "You could call me a terrorist." But in our gun-happy society, whoever sold him the gun only had to check his driver's license and credit card.

Gabrielle Giffords is alive as I write this, and doctors are "cautiously optimistic" she will live. But let's be bluntly real. The bullet passed entirely through the brain. She is never going to be the first woman president.

She is, in all probability, never going to return to be an effective member of Congress  What level of functionality she has may not be known for a time. But remember James Brady, the press secretary who was shot in the head with President Reagan: Her career is over.

The news was more devastating still for the family of John Roll, the senior federal judge in Arizona, a Republican who, like nearly everybody else, seems to have liked Gabby Giffords.

Judge Roll was killed at the scene. So were three folks in their 70s — Dorothy Murray, Dorwin Stoddard and Phyllis Scheck. Gabe Zimmerman, a 30-year-old aide to the congresswoman, died too.

Christina Greene was the one I thought most about. She was still alive when they got her to the hospital, but didn't last very long. She was reportedly fascinated by politics, and excited to meet a member of Congress. She didn't expect to be killed in the process. But she was. Which is sadly ironic, since she had grown up hearing a lot about mass terrorist death. Christina, you see, was born on Sept. 11, 2001.

To his credit, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said this: "When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the bigotry, the hatred that goes on in this country ..." Arizona, he said, has "become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

This wasn't just rhetoric. Giffords only narrowly defeated her opponent in the November election, a 29-year-old ex-Marine named Jesse Kelly, supported by Sarah Palin. Palin, in fact, sent out literature depicting Giffords' district seen through, the congresswoman noted with alarm, "the crosshairs of a gunsight. When people do that, they have to realize there are consequences to that action." Kelly himself took it even farther. His website showed him with a combat weapon and the slogan, "Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

Well, these actions did have consequences, evidently delivered by a deranged young loser who got his name and face plastered all over the national news. That may, indeed, have been exactly what he wanted. Like John Hinckley, he'll be a footnote in history now.

This is depressing in part because those of us who have reached middle age have seen this happen over and over.

Gabby Giffords hadn't even been born when John and Robert Kennedy took their bullets. She was in fourth grade when John Lennon and Ronald Reagan got theirs. But there was something different this time. Nobody was speaking out for gun control. That's because of the popularly perceived notion that it is futile even to try any more, thanks to a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings, District of Columbia vs. Heller (2008) and McDonald vs. Chicago, in which the court ruled the Second Amendment means individuals have the right to keep and bear arms, and that states can't prevent this.

However, even the most conservative justices emphasized that this does not mean you can't have reasonable regulation, as indicated by the quote from Antonin Scalia atop this essay.

Nobody should have sold or been permitted to sell Jared Loughner a gun. Not in any state. That he was able to do so is sick, wrong and calls for a national movement for reasonable legislation.

This will be difficult, hard and long, but is vitally necessary. People have to be willing to fight against the gun lobby's lies and the National Rifle Association's millions.

Otherwise, there will be deaths upon deaths, stirred up by right-wing zealots who know what they are doing — and will afterward denounce the next Jared Loughner, who may be buying his murder weapon right now.

This is our country, and we can take it back if we want to do so badly enough. If you have any doubts, think about what Christina Greene would want you to do.

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