Flags flew at half-staff and the nation observed a moment of silence Monday for the victims of the Arizona shootings that left a federal judge and five others dead and U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded. America's period of reflection about these politically motivated killings should not pass as quickly.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said the evidence shows 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner targeted Giffords. A centrist Democrat, the Tucson representative opposed the most extreme elements of Arizona's effort to crack down on illegal immigration, and she supported national health care reform. She was meeting with constituents outside a grocery store Saturday morning, a routine exercise in democracy, when Loughner walked up and opened fire. President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and other elected officials of all political leanings responded with appropriate outrage and condemnation of violence that cannot be allowed to chill public debate or erect more barriers between the public and their elected representatives.
Loughner is a disturbed young man whose paranoid Internet rants are nearly incoherent. It is premature to blame these shootings directly on the coarse political culture fanned by some politicians, high-profile commentators and anonymous bloggers. But it is an opportunity to reassess the value of rhetoric that uses violent symbols and hints at violence as a means of objecting to government policies. There are more responsible ways to vigorously oppose political adversaries than to issue a list of targets with the crosshairs of a gun sight on their districts, as Sarah Palin did with Giffords.
The Arizona killings raise other issues as well. Loughner's instability was recognized months ago by a community college that refused to let him take more classes unless he returned with a mental health evaluation. That situation recalls the disturbed Virginia Tech student who killed 32 people in 2007 and had never received proper attention. The warning signs are always clearer after a tragedy, but there must be a better way to provide mental health services and identify potential threats without infringing on constitutional rights.
Easy access to semiautomatic weapons and large amounts of ammunition also should be re-examined. Loughner legally bought his semiautomatic handgun and magazines with about 30 bullets each. Arizona's lenient gun laws do not require a permit for concealed weapons, and the federal law that prohibited magazines that can hold so many bullets expired in 2004. There is no legitimate reason for a private citizen to be able to carry as much ammunition as this gunman did, and Congress should reinstate the ban.
But much of the discussion in the coming days will center on the impact of violent imagery and inflammatory political rhetoric. The nation has endured eras of vitriolic attacks and politically motivated shootings, from the assassination of presidents to the spasm of violence in the 1960s. The difference now is that technological advances in communication and weaponry have magnified the reach of irresponsible speech and increased security risks. How to turn down the temperature and resume a more civil discourse over genuine policy disagreements is worth reflection across the nation and in Florida — particularly if the state's elected leaders are determined to continue to cast health care reform as evil and wade into the immigration issue along with Arizona.
There are no easy answers. What is clear is that elected officials and their constituents must be able to meet in public without fearing they are risking their lives to participate in democracy.