Wednesday, January 19, 2011

(No.133) The Tucson shootings: farce follows tragedy

As I write this column the American media are still wallowing in the pathos and obsessively detailed coverage of the shooting in a Tucson Arizona parking lot of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (13 other wounded and 6 dead) by a mentally unbalanced 22 year old named Jared Loughner. I have omitted the normal qualifier "accused" since his guilt as the shooter could not be less in doubt.

However I would not argue that there are, proportionately, fewer mentally ill persons walking Canadian streets than there are in the U.S. Consider just two relevant examples: Marc Lepine's massacre in 1989 or the Dawson College episode in 2006 -- both in Montreal.

To watch cable news even in Canada but especially on the American networks is to marvel at the overheated rhetoric from and about the political left and right in the U.S. as well as the smarmy sincerity of the television talking heads.

One pointed comment about this state of affairs in the U.S. came from Globe and Mail (Toronto) columnist Margaret Wente on Jan 13. "The media," she wrote," are treating the shooting of a minor politician by a crazed gunman -- a tragedy to be sure, but not terribly significant in the course of world events -- as an existential moment in America's life."

Initially, after the shooting, some of the media (including even the New York Times) were in such a rush to report they not only stated that Ms Giffords was dead but tried to define a context for the event before the key facts were all available much less understood.

The slant taken almost immediately by some was that the shootings were somehow related to the negative and confrontational atmosphere promoted by the politically right wing talkers in the U.S. -- from Rush Limbaugh through the Fox News talking heads to Sarah Palin. There is indeed much that can be said about the unfortunate political atmosphere existing in the U.S. to which they (and others on the left and right) have contributed so substantially. However in terms of a causal connection with the apparently non-ideological, non-political but mentally unbalanced shooter -- it was an inappropriate link to suggest.

If it is not a matter of political rhetoric, then what is the practical issue going forward? I suggest the one most relevant to both cause and future remedy is not even insufficient access to mental health care available to Arizonans, specifically to the group to which Loughner likely belonged -- the 10% of schizophrenics prone to commit acts of violence.

Rather the issue arising from this tragedy that could be directly addressed with practical measures is the same one that arose after Virginia Tech and Columbine and the other major multiple victim shootings that occur with depressing regularity in the U.S.: meaningful gun control, i.e., measures addressing easy access to hand guns by not only the mentally disturbed but the American population generally.

To someone unfamiliar with American politics logic might well suggest that this tragedy in Tucson, one absorbing so much emotional attention from a public egged on by media coverage of the shootings and the aftermath, might actually prompt a majority of the U.S. Congress to take action and pass meaningful gun control measures. Sadly, it will not.

Congress did not take serious action after the shootings of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, to cite just four prominent examples from the modern era in the U.S. each of which ought to have led to truly effective and lasting action on gun control. I do not count as lasting the so-called Brady Law that requires criminal record checks of buyers like Jared Loughner sellers (14 million FBA computer checks in 2009 but prosecutions are rare for transgressions) nor the expired as of 2004 and still unrenewed 1994 ban on assault weapons.

Thanks mainly to its very substantial political power and successful record of defeating proposed gun control measures as well as those elected office holders who support them, the National Rifle Association (4 million members), the most powerful lobby group in the United States, will ensure that any move to do anything that affects the freedom of Americans to buy and carry guns will fail. Gun control, no matter how minor the measure, is the third rail of American politics for most politicians, whether Republican or Democrat. Even President Obama is careful to avoid raising the issue of more gun control.

To most Canadians, including those (like me) who regard the long gun registry in this country as of questionable worth, the fact that no action on meaningful gun control will be taken in the U.S. in the wake of the Tucson shootings is, on several levels, inexplicable as well as incredible in the proper sense of that much misused word. Indeed I predict that even the single gun-related measure mentioned thus far in public discourse post-Tucson by politicians (i.e., the banning of the 33 shot clips for the Glock 19 pistol used by Loughner) will not succeed.

People around the world who watch what is happening in Arizona wonder how a civilized society like the U.S. continues, in terms of government action following major shooting tragedies such as Tucson, to ignore the facts of the ongoing challenge to civil society in America. I use the word major to distinguish this type of shooting from the 260+ shootings that occur in the U.S. annually in which at least 3 people are shot.

What are the facts to which I refer? Here's a sample:

-- Arizona, 71.6% of whose 400+ murders in a year (2008) are committed with firearms, has virtually no restrictions on carrying concealed weapons nor do a majority of American states.

-- The proportion of Americans who, according to a USA Today poll done post-Tucson shootings, believe that the tragedy would NOT have been prevented if Arizona had stricter gun laws: 72%

-- The U.S. has 85 guns per 100 of its people.

-- 80 people in the U.S. die from guns every day.

-- American children are 11 times more likely to die in a gun accident than are those in other developed countries.

-- Almost 100,000 people in the U.S. are shot each year, 30,000 of whom die of gunshot wounds (i.e., 10 times each year the number of those who died in the World Trade Centre towers on 9/11.)

Many Canadians, when asked to distinguish Canadian society from American, habitually mention first our health care system and gun control. They still can. The U.S. health care initiative led by President Obama is a major step forward but remains (for reasons I will not get into here) a long way from Canada's universal, government single payer system -- even with all its imperfections. As for guns and shootings and gun control, the gap grows steadily greater.

If, as one hopes, Congresswoman Jeffords recovers from her terrible gunshot wound, an inevitable question occurs: will she become a political advocate for new even if modest gun control measures? I predict not. She was, like most Democratic politicians from areas other than the northeastern states, a firm opponent of stricter gun control and actually owned a Glock handgun.

While they pray for the recovery of Ms Jeffords and the other wounded, Arizonans have been busy. Handgun sales in the state on the Monday following the weekend shooting increased by 60%. On the next weekend after the shooting, 13 miles away, the "Crossroads of the West" gun show went ahead as scheduled in the Pima County Fairgrounds.

And why not? Gun shows are popular and frequent in the U.S. since even the very modest and quickly completed screening required before an American who buys a gun at a store gets his gun can be avoided when the purchase is made at a gun show, often referred to as "the gun show loophole". Some things are just too important to be forced to postpone them, even momentarily.

It is sad for me, a Canadian who has both American friends and an admiration of so much that is good about our neighbour, to see the political farce that is playing out in the wake of the Tucson tragedy and will again after the next such tragedy -- and of course there will be a next one.

Canadians should not feel at all smug in the wake of the Tucson tragedy. But there is no doubt today about the very much greater height of the regulatory bar over which any Canadian must pass in order to possess a handgun in comparison with the one over which Jared Loughner stepped easily and quickly in Tucson to purchase his Glock -- a purchase made notwithstanding his rejection in Dec.2008 as an applicant by the U.S. Army because of his history of drug abuse, his (at least) two run ins with the police (including a drug-related arrest in 2007) and his expulsion for his threatening behaviour in classes by his college unless he could provide satisfactory proof of his mental health.

Given all that has happened in American society over the decades relating to guns and gun control, as hard as I try it is impossible for me even to imagine what it would take to bring about any substantive change to the Alice-In-Wonderland environment in which apparently many if not a majority of Americans and their elected representatives think they have a constitutional right to own and easily access weapons which cause the death of 30,000 of their fellow citizens every year.


Alastair Rickard