Peaceful Assembly Shattered, Democracy Fractured

How is the recent shooting in Arizona a failure for which no one is willing to accept any responsibility?

January 11, 2011

How is the recent shooting in Arizona a failure for which no one is willing to accept any responsibility?

It is commonly said that success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. In U.S. journalism, the presentation of two opposing — read: polarizing — views has become a tacit requirement of reporting, which is actually a constraint that prevents moral judgments from being made.

This type of presentation of both “sides” is a form of moral relativism, and the method is a failure of journalism. All things are not equal or a matter of opinion.

The tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, is an example of a political, legislative and cultural failure for which no one is willing to accept any responsibility. Without recognizing the factors that enabled this tragedy, including the availability of deadly firearms and lax laws, there will be no remedy.

The Pima County Sheriff has made a noble beginning. The evening of the shooting, he said in a nationally televised news conference, “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 hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.” He continued, “And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

It is simply not the case that the political left and the political right are equally responsible for the “vitriol” and violence in American politics. Instead of leading the Republican Party to govern the country in an upright fashion, mainstream conservatives have submitted to the worst anti-government rhetoric and policies, as they have for the last few decades.

Ronald Reagan famously said that government is the problem. The right proceeds from this unexamined axiom that government is bad. The result is a tragedy.

Guns and politics

The vitriol that suffuses our politics took an ominous turn during the recent midterm election cycle, when pro-gun imagery and rhetoric became increasingly prevalent — beginning to threaten the 1st Amendment right to peaceful assembly.

Representative Giffords had expressed concern in spring 2010 when Sarah Palin “targeted” her district by placing a rifle sight over the area on an electoral map. In an interview during the campaign, Giffords said, “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 gun sight over our district. When people do that, they have to realize that there are consequences to that action.”

Even worse, Representative Giffords’ challenger during the campaign, Jesse Kelly, held fundraisers inviting participants to shoot a fully loaded M-16. He is unapologetic, saying he sees no connection between his behavior during the campaign and the shooting that killed a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge, among others.

The rule of law

The violence and vitriol in politics undoubtedly contributed to the recent tragedy — as did the recent weakening of the legal structures that could protect the public’s safety. The U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts re-interpreted the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution, which was written to establish a well-regulated militia, as an individual right in its 2008 decision, Heller v. DC.

In June 2010, in McDonald v. Chicago, the Court restricted the ability of municipalities to regulate guns. The City of Chicago has had to re-write its regulations to come into compliance with the federal ruling.

As the Chicago Tribune reported on December 29, 2010, the federal ruling is having effects across the country. The Ohio State Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the City of Cleveland, although it has home rule, cannot pass gun laws stricter than the state laws. The decision nullifies bans on assault weapons and hand-gun registration requirements.

Despite gun-related tragedies in the United States, including the shootings at Columbine High School (April 20, 1999) and Virginia Tech (April 16, 2007), the legal framework on gun control continues to be eroded in the United States from interest groups such as the NRA and from their political supporters.

States such as Virginia, Tennessee and Arizona passed laws last year allowing the carrying of concealed weapons in bars and restaurants serving alcohol. Although there are prohibitions against drinking and driving, these states legislatively allow mixing alcohol and guns. This is a failure of law and of culture.

In the case of the Tucson massacre, Arizona’s relaxed purchasing, sales and carrying laws allowed a psychologically unstable man, who had been rejected for military service and had an arrest record, to purchase a 9mm Glock handgun and an elongated magazine containing 30 rounds — and to carry the weapon in public. The trend in the federal courts and in federal and state legislatures is both foolish and dangerous. The individual did not act in a vacuum.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood that words have consequences — and they took pains to craft the founding document with care. With respect for the Constitution, for those who have upheld it and for the future of American democracy, all Americans — private citizens and policymakers alike — must work to mend the social fabric and restore basic respect and decency.

Reasonable people can disagree without fear, distrust, violence and tragedy.

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Takeaways

The individual did not act in a vacuum. This is a failure of law and of culture.

Often, the presentation of both "sides" is a form of moral relativism, and the method is a failure of journalism.

Reasonable people can disagree without fear, distrust, violence and tragedy.

Although there are prohibitions against drinking and driving, some U.S. states legislatively allow mixing alcohol and guns.