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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Another massacre

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 11, 2011 - The attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' life, the murder of six citizens and the wounding of 13 more is surely a dreadful event, but hardly unimaginable or unthinkable. Indeed, if anything the tragic event in Tucson was in some sense foreseeable.

Of course I don't mean that the bloodshed that occurred a few days ago in Arizona was bound to happen then and there. But I do mean that the history, culture, policy and politics of this country -- the socio-political context -- make such violence both possible and predictable.

Everyone in Congress must remember the mass shooting at Virginia Tech just a few years ago that left 33 dead. More recently Maj. Nidal Hassan was charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas. In the more distant past many of us remember political assassinations both successful (two Kennedy brothers) and failed (Ronald Reagan and George Wallace). In the light, no, the darkness, of this history, it would take a very hopeful optimist to say that political violence won't happen again and, yes, again.

Because violence in general and political violence in particular are not uncommon, the immediate reactions to the shooting in Tucson are also familiar. Lots of commentators, reporters, officials and citizens will seek and offer instant explanations. The immediate answers this time include the mental state of the suspected shooter, the easy availability of weaponry, the inadequacy of current laws, the particular cultural context of Arizona and the heated, not to say threatening, level of so much political rhetoric. ("Don't retreat, reload.")

It is a short step from speculating about possible explanations for the recent horror to the assignment and denial of blame, a run for cover, protestations of innocence and wonder about what is to be done.

Many liberals and certainly many gun control advocates will blame permissive gun laws. Arizona's laws are nothing if not permissive, and federal law is not particularly strict. Until 2004, the 33-bullet magazine or clip in the Glock 19 that Jared Loughner is charged with using was prohibited by federal law; but that law was allowed to lapse. Of course, not everyone will blame lax regulation of gun ownership. Many will point to the mental state of Loughner and argue that no law could have prevented what happened. And those who have used strong language and martial metaphors will proclaim their innocence and dismay at the mass shooting.

Explanation, blame and denial may all represent attempts by various interested parties to seek advantage or prevent action -- however subtly, discretely, ambiguously. Gun control advocates may see an opportunity for progress in the Tucson carnage. (Within weeks, we are likely to see bills in Congress renewing the limits on firearm magazine capacity. Other legislative proposals may follow.) Political moderates and independents may see an opportunity to advocate the toning down of political rhetoric. In contrast to those seeking preventative action, gun rights advocates (read the National Rifle Association) may simply see a challenge to be waited out.

After the headlines have faded, and they will, what are the likely outcomes?

The bleak answers are minimal, symbolic or none. The news cycle being what it is, Tucson will be off the front pages in days and on the back burner in months if not weeks. And if the past is any guide, a single horrifying event -- even if it is just the latest in a lengthening list -- is unlikely to budge public opinion.The National Rifle Association (disclosure -- a long time ago I was a member and was a competitive pistol target shooter in college) is unlikely to change its pro gun position and numbers of legislators and candidates will be unwilling to take on the gun lobby. There is also, no surprise, much else on the congressional agenda.

Political negotiation being what it is, President Obama may need the support of gun rights legislators as he seeks economic, climate, budget or other legislation. And, well worth remembering, 50 states and countless localities play a role in the regulation of firearms. Federalism is hardly a recipe for fast action.

Even tough new laws, which would likely be challenged in court, may not be a sufficient response in the current gun ridden context. Instead, what may be needed is a thoughtful amendment to the Second Amendment -- the right to keep and bear arms amendment. When the Second Amendment was adopted, muskets and muzzle loading rifles were the weapons of choice. It is hard to imagine that our founding fathers envisioned today's assault weapons or 33-shot automatic pistols -- as they did not envision women voting, voters directly electing United States senators, or that slavery would be abolished. Perhaps it is time to update the Second Amendment, as other constitutional provisions have been updated. But don't hold your breath.

James W. Davis is a professor emeritus in political science at Washington University. 

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