As the nation recoils from the horror of the mass shooting in Arizona, I am struck by a strong sense of terrible inevitability. The cauldron of political violence had been allowed to boil for too long. As it did in 1995 with Timothy McVeigh, at some point violent action was destined to follow the violent talk and the brandishing of guns.
It started two summers ago during the red hot public debate over health care, when angry protesters with guns started showing up at presidential events and town hall meetings. A dozen people openly carried guns outside the Phoenix convention center where the president was giving a speech, including one with an AR-15 assault rifle strapped to his back. A New Hampshire man stood outside another presidential appearance on health care reform with a pistol strapped to his thigh. And like a bizarre premonition of yesterday's shooting, in August of 2009 an armed protester actually dropped his handgun at an earlier "Congress on the Corner" event with Rep. Giffords, then as now outside a Safeway.
And then there was Sharron Angle, who in the midterm elections called for for "Second Amendment remedies" to be used "when our government becomes tyrannical." Indeed, openly displayed pistols became commonplace at Tea Party events. Threats of violence were made against supporters of the president, and the windows of Democratic offices were shattered across the nation, including the district offices of Rep. Giffords (apparently by gunshot), all in apparent response to an appeal from a right wing website. A political extremist was intercepted on his way to attack San Francisco's Tides Foundation. During her reelection campaign, Rep. Giffords' Republican opponent exemplified the toxic mix of guns and politics when he held campaign events where he invited his supporters to rally against her by joining him in shooting machine guns.
In the wake of the Tucson bloodshed, there has been much commentary already about the incendiary rhetoric and violent imagery that has invaded our political discourse. Those who have so poisoned our politics deserve our derision. But it is not only an issue of rhetoric and imagery. The fact is that the rhetoric springs from an ideology of political violence -- a set of convictions about the relation between citizens and their government -- that has found a home among radical "gun rights" zealots.
When Sharron Angle spoke of "Second Amendment remedies," they were echoing a core belief of the "gun rights" movement, including the leaders of the National Rifle Association, that guns are legitimate tools of political dissent. The NRA often talks of the Second Amendment as the "First Freedom," because it is the potential of an armed populace to take up arms against their political leaders that deters tyranny. In the aftermath of Tucson, it is chilling to recall the words of an NRA official, who told the New York Times some years ago, that "the Second Amendment... is literally a loaded gun in the hands of the people held to the heads of government." Or, as NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre, told a cheering crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2009, "Freedom is nothing but dust in the wind till it's guarded by the blue steel and dry powder of a free and armed people... Our founding fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules."
Much is yet to be known about the beliefs and motivations of the Tucson killer. But we know for certain what he has done. He targeted a U.S. Congresswoman, who now lies critically wounded, and his attack killed six innocent people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old child, as well as wounding 13 others. At some level, he felt justified to take up arms against a government official. He sought to "make his own rules" with a semi-automatic pistol. The result was mass slaughter.
In our republic, the rules are made, not through violence, but through the vigorous discussion of issues between the people and their elected representatives. Ironically, that is what was occurring outside that Tucson Safeway when the gunman struck. He was attacking not just Rep. Giffords and her constituents. He was attacking our cherished tradition of peaceful dissent and democratic decision-making. In hindsight, it seems especially appropriate that, during the recent reading of the Constitution on the House Floor, Rep. Giffords read the First Amendment.
The time has come for political leaders of both parties, whether liberal or conservative, to renounce the ideology of political violence. Ideas have consequences. The idea that "the guys with the guns make the rules" has inevitable consequences that can no longer be tolerated.
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009).