What's the Matter With My Arizona?
Tucson, Arizona—I was 8 years old in Tucson when I first had a firearm pressed into my hands at a summer camp, and I locked and loaded and fired.
The tragedy in Arizona has sparked an overdue dialogue about how to maintain robust debate in a civil society.
I thought about that strange first gun experience when I heard the initial confusing news reports of the shooting of US Representative Gabby Giffords and seventeen other Arizonans at a Safeway supermarket on the northwest side of town I have frequented often. I immediately headed for the university hospital.
On the drive over, I was reminded by a Tucson friend that it has been less than a year since Arizona Governor Jan Brewer made her state one of three in the nation to allow citizens over the age of 21 to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
The alleged Tucson shooter is 22. According to the New York Times, "a witness to the shootings and a former emergency room doctor who now works at a hospice. 'I think it was a semiautomatic, and he must have got off 20 rounds.'"
A 9-year-old bystander has been listed among six confirmed dead; twelve others, including the beloved Representative Giffords, are in critical condition.
One of the dead is federal Judge John Roll, who had received death threats over an immigrant rights case.
I don't believe this tragedy should be reduced to a debate over the disturbed shooter's motives.
But how on earth can we even have a discussion on decent gun control laws when guns and the gun lobby are woven into the fabric of life for those of us who grew up in Arizona?
I cut my political teeth as a 17-year-old intern with legendary Arizona US Representative Mo Udall, who defied liberal Democrats with his opposition to gun control. Udall told a Harvard crowd during his presidential campaign 1976: "I don't claim total courage; I don't claim total wisdom."
In my forty-year relationship with this state, I have never witnessed such overt hatred on the level that has been spewed by politicians and talking heads over the past year or so. Earlier this spring, many of us warned of a tipping point of violence in Arizona—and around the nation.
When I first opened the New York Times this morning, I read about Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne's obsessive near witch-hunt of the Tucson Unified School District's Ethnic Studies Program.
What's the matter with my Arizona, where I grew up as a redneck transplant from the southern Illinois in 1970s, and have continued to visit my family?
"As I write," says long-time author and social critic Gregory McNamee in Tucson, "it is not clear whether Representative Gabrielle Giffords has been killed or has survived being shot, along with at least a dozen and perhaps as many as twenty other victims." McNamee adds:
What is clear to me, at this chaotic moment, is that no one should be surprised by this turn of events. The bullets that were fired in Tucson this morning are the logical extension of every bit of partisan hatred that came spewing out during the last election, in which Gabrielle Giffords—a centrist, representing well and faithfully a centrist district---was vilified and demonized as a socialist, a communist, a fascist, a job-killer, a traitor, and more.
Anyone who uttered such words or paid for them to be uttered has his or her name etched on those bullets.
With what we have seen today, the rest of us must declare that we will tolerate no more lies, no more hatred, no more violence—and that never again will we spend a single dollar on the wares sold by those who perpetrate them.
If not now, when?
Now in Arizona—and the nation—do we have the courage and wisdom to deal with our gun laws? To stop the hatred from finding its all-too-easy expression through the barrel of the gun?