It took only seconds for a self-appointed assassin armed with a semiautomatic pistol to shoot Representative Gabrielle Giffords through the head; to kill US District Court Judge John Roll and five others; and to wound fourteen more people. It took barely longer than that for the news of the Tucson shootings to shock a political culture numbed by war, economic crisis and two years of lock-and-load rhetoric. On the other hand, even in the Internet age, criminal investigation and psychiatric examination take time. It’s too soon to know why this lone gunman went on his rampage or whether anyone could have stopped him. All the early signs point to a deeply disturbed young man who stalked Giffords and planned her assassination over months while friends, classmates and teachers expressed growing alarm at his outbursts and Internet postings.
For all that we don’t know about Jared Lee Loughner, there is a lot we do know about the circumstances of this shooting. We know Loughner purchased his gun legally at a sporting goods store. We know that Giffords had already received well-publicized threats and endured a smashed door for her vote to support President Obama’s healthcare bill and that Judge Roll had drawn threats for his ruling in a key immigration case. We know, too, that Giffords’s Tea Party–backed opponent, Jesse Kelly, invited supporters to "shoot a fully automatic M16" to "get on target for victory"; that Sarah Palin placed Giffords’s district in gunsight cross hairs in campaign ads; that Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle cheerfully proposed "Second Amendment remedies" for political disagreements. We know that threats to members of Congress increased dramatically last year.
Republicans, gun activists and Tea Party adherents are trying to put distance between themselves and the Tucson rampage by pointing to Loughner’s evident mental illness. But Loughner’s mental state does not absolve the lock-and-loaders of responsibility. To the contrary: it is well established in psychiatric literature that the delusions experienced by schizophrenics are shaped by the language, images, resentments and fears that permeate their wider culture in any particular country or time. Those politicians and pundits inviting or implying "Second Amendment remedies" for liberal "conspiracies" on immigration, healthcare, President Obama’s citizenship, gun regulation and on and on are selling a daily dose of eliminationist fantasy to the angriest and most estranged minds—including those unable to draw a distinction between gunsight as metaphor and real-life target practice on politicians.
Conservatives don’t usually show such interest in the mentally ill. From the early 1980s, when President Reagan scrapped funding for community mental health clinics, through 2008, when most Republicans tried to kill parity for mental health insurance coverage in the healthcare bill, conservatives have shaped a system that denies essential services and discourages intervention when people like Loughner fall over the edge. Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, former director of the Michigan Mental Health Department, puts it this way: "School officials want to protect their communities, so they expel students without follow-up. We grant these delusional young men privacy, freedom and civil rights. We do not adequately fund their care, nor do we compel treatment unless they go way over the line, and then we use forensic centers, jails and prisons." This crisis is particularly acute in Arizona, which has a theoretically strong law allowing for intervention on behalf of citizens at risk but where escalating budget deficits have reduced intervention to irrelevance. As Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute documented in a report released just a few weeks ago, since 2008 the state’s funding for mental health services has been cut by 47 percent, with many programs eliminated altogether, resulting in "thousands of Arizonans and their families facing either no publicly funded behavioral health treatment or severely restricted access to such services." (Contrast that with Giffords, who despite her reputation as a Blue Dog fiscal conservative not only voted for mental health parity in insurance coverage but fought for expanded mental healthcare for veterans, and in her last term in the State Senate was named legislator of the year by the Arizona Mental Health Association.)
In Tucson, Loughner’s apparent mental illness combined fatally with one of the country’s most irresponsibly lax gun laws, driven by a firearms lobby so powerful that last year Governor Jan Brewer signed a measure ending the longstanding requirement for a permit to carry concealed weapons. Here too, Loughner’s rampage is only one expression of a far broader crisis. As Washington Post investigative reporters Sari Horwitz and James Grimaldi recently documented, Arizona gun shops are prime sources for the thousands of weapons arming Mexico’s drug cartels. The same ease with which Loughner obtained his weapon and extended magazine clip is feeding massive violence across the border just miles from Tucson. Last weekend, Arizona got a taste of what its guns have long delivered to Mexico, including the assassinations of judges and elected officials.
To raise these issues does not exploit or politicize the horror in Tucson. Rather, it recognizes that the political currency of the right has long made a dangerous world more dangerous: shredding social safety nets, flooding our country and our neighbors with weapons, pitting civil rights and progressive social policy against reckless, I’ve-got-mine individualism backed up by insistent and violent paramilitary visions. Jared Lee Loughner appears to be a conspiracy of one. But the gun in his hand, the language and images he absorbed daily, even the fact that no institution was prepared to catch him as he went over the edge—those are a product of political design and intention nurtured over a generation. There is an opportunity now to show a different America. That doesn’t mean only rejecting gunsight ads or turning away from threatening campaign rhetoric; it means leaders from President Obama on down clearly articulating a social compact, which is the only real route to safety for politicians and citizens alike.