Saturday morning I was watching the Twitter stream when the first accounts of the shooting in Arizona began to ring out. The news reports were, as we all know now, all over the map, with various accounts of what happened, and the reported death of Congresswoman Giffords. At the same time, within the first hours of the tragedy, various bloggers moved quickly to note that Giffords was one of the targets on the Sarah Palin map, offering speculation about the connections between the often violent speech of the right-wing with this latest tragedy. Those speculations were fueled when an obviously distraught Arizona sheriff suggested that the anti-governmental screed found in the media may have had a connection to this tragedy. In the hours and days since, the narrative about the connection between violent political rhetoric as a factor in leading troubled people to respond violently has been front and center in the media.
Over time (beyond the defensive responses of Tea Party officials and the ludicrous attempts by Palin supporters to suggest that the map didn’t actually have gun based images on it) a few voices have come forth so recognize that the connection between the condemned rhetoric and the killer was not one of cause and effect. It’s clear that Jared Loughner is a very troubled, very sick man whose own demons were the driving factor in this tragedy. While the rhetoric may have provided a climate of hate and demonization that was in the background of Mr. Loughner’s delusions, there is no indication that he was driven by any specific voice or any specific images to carry out the attacks of this past weekend.
However, in the midst of all the speculation and the attempts to point the finger (which is part of the normal human desire to seek for simplistic answers in the midst of tragedy) there is a conversation that has been largely missing from the dialogue . . . a conversation that is in my opinion a valid critique of extremism that led to this crime more than any other . . . and that conversation is about the ease in which a deranged person like Mr. Loughner could obtain the weapon used to shoot innocent people.
By all indications to this point, the 9mm Glock that Loughner used was purchased legally in a normal gun store according to the regulations of our day. This was done in the midst of Mr. Loughner’s delusional ranting and odd demeanor which was apparent enough to lead a community college to ban him from the campus unless he received mental health treatment and led the U.S. military to not accept him as a new recruit. Mr. Loughner had a arrest record and was posting videos and notes on the web which suggested that something wasn’t quite right. And yet, this person had no problem walking into a store, plopping down his $400 and walking out with an implement that is as dangerous (and maybe more so in the fact that it can be concealed until use) as the 2,000 pound vehicle he rode to the site in which required testing and a license to operate. At some point there is a disconnect here that has to be discussed.
And that is where the right gets it wrong I think, for the right has traditionally taken an all or nothing approach to the conversation about firearms. In the desire to avoid what they see as a slippery slope of regulation that will ultimately lead to the banning of all weapons, groups like the NRA have taken an absolutist position that fails to recognize that the rights that allow them to own a gun conflict with the rights of others to not be shot by crazy people. There is an unwillingness to talk about the thousand pound elephant in the room – that there are some people who (due to their impaired mental status) simply should not have a weapon in their presence. Putting systems of licensing and testing in place offers the opportunity for someone to recognize those dangers early on, and perhaps prevent situations like the one we saw Saturday.
Look, I admit fully that I’m not a gun guy. I don’t own any guns and shooting is not my thing. But I have family and friends who are avid hunters and I affirm their desire to own guns and use them in a responsible manner. While I find myself more ambivalent about handguns (which beyond target practice are not weapons of sport) I likewise am open to their being sold to individuals – but only after a background check and some form of licensing procedure. Out inability to do so leads each year to deaths by accident and due to gun use by mentally instable individuals.
And that is where I make my appeal to my friends on the right. I don’t want to take your guns away, but it’s time for a rational conversation regarding keeping them out of the hands of folks who cannot rationally discern right from wrong. We all have the right to own vehicles, but have established that they are dangerous enough to operate that setting up limits on operating them are appropriate – and require testing and licensing to do so. Isn’t it possible that if Mr. Loughner had been required to undergo some sort of testing procedure and a background check a 9 year old girl would be alive this morning?
This is the conversation that should be taking place this morning . . . one that is reasonable and balanced, not between extremists on the right and left each arguing positions that impede on the rights of the other, but by folks who recognize the complexity of our world and understand that their is life between the extremes that attempts to balance the rights of one with the other to ensure the safety of all.