WASHINGTON -- Some of the most pointed comments in the wake of Saturday's tragic shooting in Arizona regarding the dangers of vitriolic political discourse have come from Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who said his state has "become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry." As a consequence of speaking out, Dupnik is now coming under attack, with a talk radio host even calling for his resignation.
"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government," said Dupnik at a press conference Saturday. "The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
Although Dupnik has since been embraced by many observers -- there's a "Clarence Dupnik is My Hero" Facebook page, and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann called his comments "extraordinary" -- others are not so pleased.
In an interview with CBS's "Face the Nation," Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said Dupnik's comments were inappropriate and nothing more than "speculation."
First, I didn't really think that that had any part in a law enforcement briefing last night. It was speculation. I don't think we should rush to speculate. I thought that the report that we just saw from Tucson seems to have it about right: We really don't know what motivated this young person except to know he was very mentally unstable as was pointed out in the piece.
It's probably giving him too much credit to ascribe a coherent political philosophy to him. We just have to acknowledge that there are mentally unstable people in this country. Who knows what motivates them to do what they do? Then they commit terrible crimes like this. I would just note Gabrielle Giffords, a fine representative from Tucson, I think would be the first to say don't rush to judgment here.
Right-wing radio host Jon Justice, who is on KQTH FM 104.1 in Arizona, has called for Dupnik's resignation and taken issue with the sheriff's singling-out of talk radio.
"To say, as Dupnik did, that comments made on the airwaves essentially motivated this person to commit this crime is exactly what he blamed talk radio of doing, inciting through pure rhetoric," Justice said in a statement to Tucson Weekly. "It was complete misuse of his power and he owes the media in town, TV and radio, an apology for his horrible comments in the middle of such a tragic day. He should step down immediately from his position as Pima County Sheriff."
Dupnik has been the sheriff of Pima County, which sits right along Arizona's border with Mexico, since 1980. Last April, he forcefully denounced the state's controversial immigration law, stating, "This law is unwise, this law is stupid, and it's racist. It's a national embarrassment. ... If I were a Hispanic person in the state, I would be humiliated and angered. From that point of view, I think it's morally wrong."
In a press conference Sunday, Dupnik stood by his remarks about dangerous political rhetoric. When asked about his comments from the day before, he replied, "I think that when the rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates and to try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with."
Dupnik also had harsh words on his state's gun laws, which allow individuals to carry concealed weapons without a permit. (Gov. Jan Brewer signed the legislation into law in April.)
"Well, I think we're the tombstone of the United States of America," he said, adding, "I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstances that they want, and that's almost where we are."
UPDATE, 4:26 p.m.: The Atlantic reports that Tea Party Nation, led by Judson Phillips, is joining in the criticism: "TPN founder Judson Phillips, in an article linked off the e-mail 'The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and the left's attack on the Tea Party movement,' described the shooter as 'a leftist lunatic' and Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik as a 'leftist sheriff' who 'was one of the first to start in on the liberal attack.' Phillips urged tea party supporters to blame liberals for the attack on centrist Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was shot through the head and is now fighting for her life, as a means of defending the tea party movement's recent electoral gains."
UPDATE, 1/10/11, 11:46 a.m.: The conservative Heritage Foundation is also criticizing Dupnik, writing, "Americans like Sheriff Dupnik, who claim that they are interested in creating a more civil discourse, ought to think long and hard about pointing their fingers at other peoples' words before making completely unsubstantiated accusations. Those who blame the rhetoric of their political opponents for these heinous crimes, when no such evidence exists, only further coarsen our civil discourse."