Tom Zoellner Discusses the Year Anniversary of the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting

Flowers piled outside U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords office in Tucson shortly after the shooting.
Flowers piled outside U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords office in Tucson shortly after the shooting.
Photo by Jamie Peachey

This Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the "Tucson Tragedy" -- the shooting that left six dead and 14 more (including the shooter's intended target, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords) wounded at the hands of a young man from Marana named Jared Lee Loughner.

In the year that's passed, many have tried to pick up the pieces, to make sense of the senseless, and to figure out what the shootings say about Arizona.

In his new book, A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America, Tom Zoellner, a longtime friend of Giffords', explores the events that led up to the shooting and offers his advice for how Arizona and the country need to change in order to prevent the next shooting rampage.

Zoellner, whose other notable books tackled the diamond and uranium industries, is a former reporter for The Arizona Republic, and volunteered on two of Giffords' congressional campaigns. He is currently an Associate Professor of English at Chapman University and lives in Los Angeles.

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We reviewed Zoellner's book in this week's print edition of the New Times and Zoellner took the time to talk with us about his new book and his perspective on the year anniversary of the shooting. A Safeway in Arizona focuses largely on mental health and societal issues related to the shooting. Giffords and her family were not involved in the research for the book, and Zoellner declined to answer questions regarding her recovery or his opinion on her political future.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: My goal was to fully understand what happened on January 8, and, more importantly, why it happened. There are several misunderstandings about Arizona in the national consciousness, which were only furthered after the shooting. I also felt I owed to Gabrielle Giffords and Gabe Zimmerman, both friends of mine, to examine the factors that may have contributed to the violence that day in hopes that such a thing might be prevented in the future. There are contributing factors that we cannot sweep under the rug. This was not a natural disaster that nobody could have stopped. This was eminently preventable.

Q: Do you believe the vitriol of politicians on both sides of the aisle played a role in fomenting an environment where violence like that seen at the Safeway could be possible?

A: Yes. I don't think Arizona "caused" this shooting to happen. But I believe strongly that this event did not come out of nowhere and that the mean-spirited, hostile atmosphere created an enabling context for what happened. There is abundant scientific data that shows the delusions of paranoid schizophrenics are highly influenced by the culture and the dialogue that envelopes them. In the election of 2010, which was the most toxic race I've ever witnessed in Tucson, Gabrielle Giffords was portrayed as the embodiment of the sinister federal government that was coming after people. I have no doubt whatsoever that this atmosphere played a role in pushing Loughner toward making a statement of political violence instead of exploding in another way. Gabrielle herself was rightly worried that someone would come shoot her at one of her events. That such a thing was conceivable to a rational person should give everyone pause. And to blithely say "this has nothing to do with us; this could have happened anywhere" is just flat-out wrong, and is a dangerous kind of denialism. There was no one causal factor, but there were a constellation of factors whirling about in Arizona that arranged themselves in a sickening way.

Q: How can we prevent this type of shooting rampage from happening again?

A: There are no guarantees, but Arizona must start to think more sensibly about its gun laws and restore lost funding for the care of the mentally ill. Our state used to be a model for Medicaid distribution and this is now a pathetic shadow of what it used to be. We also need to understand that our state grew up in the era of the automobile and the detached ranch-house subdivision. That such a landscape is not physically conducive to forming the lasting social bonds that make neighbors aware that they are connected to each other. Our major architectural vocabulary is one of loneliness. The Safeway shooting happened because of an ugly convergence of factors, but none more important than Jared Loughner was grossly sick and nobody seemed to give a damn about it.

Q: After the Tucson shooting, there were cries for stricter gun laws. What do you think needs to change regarding gun laws in Arizona and the country?

A: My own feeling is that a 30-shot magazine for a handgun is a ludicrous product and that Arizona should join California, Maryland, Hawaii, Illinois and several other states in prohibiting their sale. These used to be illegal everywhere under federal law. I also believe that Arizona should require a one-hour safety course for anyone buying a weapon. No instructor would have given a handgun to someone like Jared Loughner after listening to him for more than twenty seconds.

  Q: What do you think has changed in Arizona and the country in the past year? Or maybe more importantly, what hasn't changed that should have?

A: We saw Tucson come together as it never has before in a show of grief and unity. As I mentioned, the previous campaign had been nasty and perhaps there may have been some sublimated guilt in the civic response: that we all recognized we should have done more to keep the conversation on a higher plane and to treat each other better. I don't think the recall of Russell Pearce or the growing popular unease with Joe Arpaio has anything to do with the horror over the shootings per se, but this sudden change of fortune for our most polarizing figures is a part of a course-correction, to my way of thinking. We have spent too long trying to gain power by tearing out each other's throats, and not nearly enough time getting to know each other in this somewhat anonymous desert. In general, we have an aging Anglo population and a rising youthful Latino population and it has been too easy thus far to exploit the differences rather than embrace the commonalities. The glory of America has always been our ability to unite disparate factions behind a set of common values, and Arizona ought to be a shining model for the rest of the nation in accomplishing that. And we haven't yet.

Q: What do you hope to change with your book, A Safeway in Arizona?

A: Several things. I hope it sheds light on the power of context in shaping individual decisions, especially those of the mentally ill. I hope it explains the way that talk-radio really works, for those who believe it is actually concerned with shaping public policy (it isn't). I hope it clears up some pervasive myths about illegal immigration. I hope it sets the record straight on why Arizona's political life is in its current form, and explains some of the hidden dynamics of our state's culture. I hope to let people know what they've heard about Gabrielle Giffords is true: she really is that good of a person. In the end, the book is my love letter to Arizona, where my family has lived for five generations.

Q: With all the horrible tragedies that happen each day in the world, the country and in our own communities, why is it important to commemorate the anniversary of the Tucson shooting?

A: Whether we like it or not, this was a major historical event, a profane occurrence that forever changed the lives of those involved and their families, and an appalling rip in our social fabric that we cannot ignore. The talk of "hope and healing" will mean nothing if we look away from the root causes of this mass-murder and fail to make a better Arizona because of it.

Q: What punishment do you think Loughner should face?

A: Jared Loughner may or may not have been cognizant of the evil of his actions, but I do not think he should ever spend another day as a free man under any circumstances. It is hard to imagine that he ever will. I have confidence the legal system will deal with him appropriately.

Q: How can we as a community best remember this date?

A: The best possible example was set by Gabrielle Giffords herself, who was reaching out to strangers at that Safeway one year ago. She wanted to hear what they thought. So an excellent way to commemorate January 8 is to talk to a fellow Arizonan that you don't know. It isn't a perfect state, but it's an awfully good one with a lot going for it, and we all share an interest in making it a more connected place. Especially if we've been choosing to live in sunny isolation, or feel that the other fellow's politics aren't quite what we like. It was another great Arizonan, Barry Goldwater, who said: "You can disagree, but you don't need to be disagreeable." We all should take that pledge, or we're going to get stuck again.

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