Arizona shooting: An isolated case with broad ramifications

Officials describe Jared Loughner as a lone actor who is mentally unbalanced. Despite the uniqueness of the case, the Arizona shooting raises big issues, from lax gun laws to demonization in political discourse.

President Obama led the country today in a moment of silence to keep the Arizona shooting victims and their families “closely at heart.” It was a welcome healing salve after a national tragedy.

But the Jan. 8 shooting that targeted Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords raises several longstanding issues that require more than a moment of national contemplation.

For instance the media are abuzz with discussion about the vitriol of political discourse as a contributing factor in the shooting.

No direct connection links such talk with the young man allegedly seen wielding a handgun, bent on assassinating Representative Giffords, a moderate Democrat. Six people were killed and Giffords was wounded, along with 13 others. Officials believe Jared Loughner acted alone, and he appears to be mentally unbalanced.

And yet this unique case does not obviate such a discussion. Threats against members of Congress have risen dramatically in the last year or so, including vandalism at Giffords’s Tucson office.

The general discussion about political discourse is always welcome, even if this case isn’t necessarily an example of its worst ramifications. An atmosphere of personal hatred can breed hate, so it is encouraging to see lawmakers this week pull together and hit the pause button on attacking each other personally. Debate should be vigorous, but aimed at ideas and actions, not demonizing people.

The shootings also point to the need for a society more aware of and responsive to people with mental-health problems. The community college that suspended Mr. Loughner last fall followed up on concerns from professors and students about Loughner’s outbursts. The college met with Loughner and his parents, and explained that the student could only return if a mental-health professional certified he was not a threat. But what about after the meeting?

This case also brings the need for reasonable gun regulation back to the fore as a societal good. Loughner passed a routine background check when he purchased his semiautomatic Glock gun in November. But had Congress not allowed the assault-weapons ban to expire in 2004, Loughner would not have been able to purchase the high-capacity ammunition clips used with the gun, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. As a result, perhaps fewer people would have been killed or wounded.

Congress should consider this higher killing capacity when they meet this week to talk about improving security for themselves.

They may decide to ramp up measures to ensure their safety. But it would defeat the purpose of the First Amendment – free speech, free assembly, the right of the people to petition the government over grievances (the very amendment that Giffords read aloud on the House floor last week) – if lawmakers enclose themselves in a security cocoon.

One issue getting little attention is the role that drugs might have played in this case. Not much has come out about that yet, but Loughner reportedly used marijuana, and hung with a group in high school who smoked pot every day. He was turned down by the Army in 2008 because he failed a drug-screening test.

Marijuana is known to exacerbate mental-health problems, especially among young people. Indeed, last year’s “Pentagon shooter,” John Patrick Bedell, was a heavy marijuana user. His psychiatrist said the use made his mental-health problems more pronounced. The Arizona case may eventually serve to show the nation that marijuana is not a benign drug.

Details about this shooting are still emerging. Yes, much makes it distinct, perhaps going down in history with other assassination aims of individuals struggling with mental-health problems.

But it can also help unite the nation in knowing that political differences are minor compared to a shared commitment to life. This incident can also spur more action on issues such as mental health, gun violence, and drug use.

Today America remembers those unexpectedly killed and wounded at a political event in Tucson. It can do right by them by drawing accurate lessons that can lead to reforms that may prevent such incidents.

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