Last Sunday Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at a political meet and greet in Tucson, Arizona, killing 6 people and wounding 13. Among the victims were a U.S. District Court Judge, a 76 year old man who died while shielding his wife from the gunfire and a 9 year old girl who, coincidentally, was born on September 11, 2001. The shooter also severely wounded Arizona state representative Gabrielle Giffords, who had previously been threatened for supporting President Obama’s healthcare reform. Giffords remains in critical condition.
Almost immediately state and federal legislators, lobbyists and activists began calling for legislation to ensure that this sort of tragedy wouldn’t happen again. For some, the answer is more gun control. For others, the answer is less gun control (for an interesting twist on the more guns/less guns debate, read this about how an armed bystander nearly shot the wrong man). Some have sidestepped the debate over weapons altogether to focus on limiting speech that appears hateful or violent (Including bans on controversial funeral protests). Others are looking for answers in the civil commitment laws in Arizona, or asking questions about insurance and health care reform.
I have opinions about all of this, some well formulated and some merely gut reactions. I understand the frenzy to attempt to solve something like this (for the cases that aren’t simply posturing and naked power grabs), but I also feel the need to keep a sober head about how much the law can do in situations like this. Loughner’s actions were already criminal - and by definition, outside the law. Certain policies might have made it tougher, or easier for him to do what he did, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we have that much control over unpredictable and irrational individuals. My concern isn’t the heated dialogues about gun control or mental health that are stemming from this, but that knee-jerk legislation introduced in response to this kind of tragedy is likely to be emotionally charged, over-reaching and ultimately, ineffective. Sometimes we have to accept that the law can’t prevent this degree of aberrant behavior, but can only deal with the aftermath.
Much has been made of the fact that Loughner was a fan of both the Communist Manifesto and Ayn Rand (for the record, I have both on my bookshelf and find this completely unremarkable). In one of Rand’s most celebrated works, Atlas Shrugged, a character by the name of Dr. Ferris makes the following claim:
“There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”
I’m not suggesting that recent legislative proposals would create such a world, but I do think the quote has some relevance. Particularly in that the more reactive laws we pass, the more restrictions we put in place, the more we build up this illusion that we can control the Jared Lee Loughners of the world.
Of course, it’s also possible that I’ve been lulled into complacency and powerlessness since Columbine. Since the Brookfield Church shooting. Since Red Lake. Since West Nickel Mines. Since Virginia Tech. Since the Westroads Mall shooting. Since the LA Fitness shooting. Since the Holocaust Museum shooting. Since the North Carolina nursing home shooting. Since Fort Hood. My deepest concern is that eventually the shock of all this will wear off and political rallies will be just one more place that isn’t safe. Like schools, churches, malls, health clubs, museums, nursing homes, military bases, etc. (a few more shootings that I’d forgotten are listed here.)
And If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you check out Jon Stewart’s very moving dialogue from the Daily Show on the Arizona tragedy and inevitable political fallout.