Arizona's Lax Gun Laws Helped Make Tucson's Jared Lee Loughner Possible
They were wanding down visitors at the Arizona state House for the first day of the Legislature, where Governor Jan Brewer dispensed with her State of the State address and focused instead on the massacre in Tucson.
"Tragedy and terror sometimes come from the shadows," the governor read from her teleprompter, "and steal our joy and take away our peace."
Of course, Brewer did not mention that such "tragedy and terror" are made easier when someone as obviously mentally disturbed as Jared Lee Loughner has a semiautomatic handgun with a 31-round clip that he's ready to unload on a crowd.
Loughner now faces five federal counts, including murder and attempted assassination, for an attack that felled federal Judge John Roll, 9-year-old Christina Green, and four others.
He also allegedly put a bullet through the brain of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (who was still struggling to survive as this edition of New Times was published) and wounded 12 more, according to the most recent information from the Pima County Sheriff's Department.
But if Loughner had felt like making the trek to the Legislature with his Glock and his high-capacity magazine legally concealed under his clothing, he could have strolled into the state House or Senate, walked into a committee hearing, or into the one of the galleries and picked off state legislators as if they were mechanical ducks in some carny's shoot-'em-up game.
See, the wanding at the state House that day was a departure from routine and, apparently, a one-off occurrence. There are no metal detectors or screening procedures, like at county, state, and municipal courts. You don't have to empty your pockets or take off your belt.
Even on the Legislature's opening day, wanding was perfunctory, at best. Carrying a digital recorder, a camera, and a keychain inside clothing didn't trip the electronic wand in two scans. No beeps.
Over at the Senate, there were no wands — and, as usual, no one to stop you from wandering all through the Senate building without any type of screening.
Sure, the Capitol grounds were crawling with state troopers in their Smokey hats. And the Capitol Police were present in force.
But on any other day the Legislature is in session, such uniformed cops are not around. Or, at least, they are not very noticeable.
Of note is that even senators and representatives are prohibited from carrying firearms while in the legislative buildings. Though how anyone would know that someone had a concealed weapon on them, sans metal detectors at the doors, is a mystery.
Yet Arizona's number-one gun enthusiast, state Senate President Russell Pearce, has proposed in the past that citizens be allowed to legally carry their weapons into state Capitol buildings.
You know Pearce. He's the guy who pushed for an end to requiring a permit to carry a concealed weapon, and he and his fellow gun fetishists in the Legislature passed a law that allows you to tote your weapon into drinking establishments, except in those where bar owners are smart enough to post signs stating that guns are not allowed.
Pearce even wants to force local police departments to resell weapons they've confiscated from criminals, weapons he has described to the Arizona Republic as "perfectly good weapons."
This, despite the fact that such resells sometimes end up involved in other crimes, or trafficked to Mexico.
Senator Pearce prides himself on being a tough guy, who mows his own lawn with a .40-caliber strapped to his hip, unconcerned about death threats.
Yet, on the Legislature's opening day, after the state Senate ended its brief session, when most senators walked across the courtyard from the Senate to the House to hear the governor speak, Pearce took a subterranean route from the Senate to the House via an underground tunnel, several sources said.
Demonstrators from the groups Citizens for a Better Arizona and East Valley Patriots for American Values were there with signs, ready to protest Pearce. But Pearce didn't show his face.
Did Pearce fear a Loughner-like attack? If so, there's no dearth of irony in that.
In the wake of the killing spree, politicians on both the left and the right lined up to out Loughner as a member of the other side. Liberal media outlets, such as the New York Times, joined the calls to dampen the nation's fiery political give-and-take.
Some pointed to Sarah Palin's map of crosshairs targeting Democrats in Congress. Others went through Loughner's deranged YouTube videos like fortune-tellers examining coffee grounds for clues.
The right, playing a good defense, went on the attack. None other than former deputy Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Alexander, currently accused of numerous ethical violations by the State Bar of Arizona, Tweeted that the 22-year-old high school dropout was an "anarcho-leftist" — whatever that is.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik quickly became a Democratic hero and a Republican target by decrying the "vitriol" in public discourse that affects "unbalanced people," such as Loughner.
"The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous," he famously said. "And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
Dupnik was right about Arizona being a "mecca" for bigotry. The ongoing nativist war against the undocumented, the battle over Senate Bill 1070, and the looming fight over the effort to undermine the birthright citizenship clause of the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment offer ample evidence to support this characterization.
But to amend a mantra of the pro-gun crowd, words don't kill people. Bullets do.
And one thing Arizona has plenty of is bullets and guns. In fact, just about the only thing standing between the next Jared Lee Loughner and the power to cut down a crowd of people — say, at the Legislature — with a semiautomatic handgun, or worse, is the "instant" FBI background check mandated by federal law for gun buyers (which didn't block Loughner from purchasing his Glock).
Some states require that your gun be registered with the local cops. Some have waiting periods. And some restrict high-capacity clips, such as the one that facilitated Saturday's rampage.
Yet to even suggest that it would be prudent to make firearms a little more difficult to obtain is considered high treason in the Grand Canyon State.
Would a waiting period have stopped Loughner? Maybe not. He bought his widow-maker at a Sportsman's Warehouse on November 30, more than a month before the killings.
But Daniel Vice, a senior attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, points out that tighter state and federal gun laws might have prevented the violence in Tucson.
"Even though he had been turned down by the military," Vice said, "even though he had been kicked out of school because he was dangerous, he was able to walk into a gun shop, immediately buy a semiautomatic handgun with a high-capacity ammunition magazine. That let him fire more than 30 rounds without reloading.
"In other states, that's limited to a standard 10-round magazine," he added. "Many lives could have been saved if [Loughner] had to stop shooting at 10 rounds."
Vice also pointed out that the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons prohibited the manufacture and sale of new high-capacity magazines. But that ban expired in 2004 and was not renewed by Congress.
Hard-core gun enthusiasts will no doubt counter that even when the ban was in effect, older high-capacity magazines were grandfathered in. But Vice insisted that, by now, those would have been more difficult for a Jared Lee Loughner to obtain, if the ban on assault weapons had been renewed.
"It would have been 16 years later now [since the ban's implementation]," noted Vice. "It would've been harder to get those. Where the shooter here was able to just walk in and was easily able to buy them."
Sure, a determined individual can buy a handgun illegally. But that's not the issue. Rather, the issue is placing a few common-sense hurdles in the way so that a nutcase cannot acquire a semiautomatic weapon with a 31-round clip over the counter like it was a bag of Halloween candy.
Second Amendment rights are sacred in Arizona, and, yes, Western states have a tradition of gun ownership that dates back to frontier days. Moreover, Giffords herself has been an advocate of Second Amendment rights. She even joined an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case challenging the District of Columbia's gun ban, which the high court ultimately ruled unconstitutional in District of Columbia vs. Heller.
Giffords has identified herself as a gun owner and called gun ownership "a tradition which every law-abiding citizen should be able to enjoy."
No one is talking about an outright ban on handguns, or taking them away from owners, as some on the far right would have you believe.
What should be discussed is making guns less prevalent, less commonplace, with a few restrictions in place. Instead, Arizona seems hell-bent on doing the opposite by practically handing them out on every street corner.
Take the proposal to allow guns to be brought onto college campuses, which probably will be raised again during this legislative session.
Imagine someone like Jared Loughner, glowering in the corner of the Pima Community College class he was ultimately booted from, armed with his Glock 19, and there's not a damn thing you, the teacher, or your fellow students can do about it.
A human time bomb could have the gun on his person or in his backpack even if a campus moratorium remains in place. But if someone noticed it on him, he could be reported and arrested.
And before Pearce and his allies altered the law so that those concealing don't have to obtain a permit, some gun-toting aggro or schizo student could've been arrested by police under state statute.
The Brady Campaign, named after Jim Brady, the White House aide debilitated for life after he was wounded in would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr.'s failed 1981 attempt on President Ronald Reagan's life, ranks states in accordance with the permissiveness of their gun laws.
Right now, only Utah beats out Arizona as more lax in this area. But the Vice says if Arizona passes a guns-on-campus free-for-all law, Utah will take a back seat and Arizona will be the gun-friendliest state in the nation.
Back at the Legislature's opening day, New Times wanted to buttonhole Pearce on the Tucson tragedy and ask him whether he felt any responsibility for fostering Sand Land's gun-nut culture.
Not that there was any doubt what the answer would be. There's a certain class of politician that never owns its deeds. A lack of shame is practically Pearce's modus operandi.
But as stated earlier, Pearce chickened out on walking from chamber to chamber in full view of the public.
However, Republican state Senator Ron Gould, of Lake Havasu City, was easy to spot. He and state Representative John Kavanagh have been carrying water for Pearce on the Senate president's plot to undermine the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
There's no shame in Gould's game either. He recently accepted a free plane ticket and a hotel stay from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the extremist group behind SB 1070, as well as some of the 14th Amendment shenanigans (See "FAIRY-y Tales," December 2).
Both Gould and Kavanagh got to visit D.C. on FAIR's dime so that they could attend a press conference unveiling the national effort to rob American-citizen babies born to the undocumented of their rights under the Constitution.
Gould was asked whether he planned to reimburse the special-interest group that sponsored his trip. He said he had no plans to and saw no reason why he should.
A free trip, after all, is a free trip.
Gould's always been a big Second Amendment type. And with Pearce in hiding, he was asked if Arizona's gun laws contributed to the carnage outside that Tucson Safeway.
"Well, apparently no one was carrying a gun," Gould shot back. "So they had to wait until the guy reloaded to incapacitate him."
This is the theory, oft proposed by pro-gun folks, that if everyone were packing heat, such incidents as the one in Tucson would not occur. Because someone would blow away the shooter.
Of course, more people shooting would probably equate to more people dead. Also, there's an element of blame-the-victim in Gould's sentiment. You know, if you're unarmed and someone comes gunning for you, well, that's your own damn fault.
There was at least one other person armed that day, according to press accounts, one of the citizens who helped subdue the attacker. But he didn't open fire. There may have been others armed as well — the gunman and his semiautomatic didn't leave much time for more than cowering in a hail of gunfire.
The gun-nut slogan that "an armed society is a polite society" was put to rest in Tucson on January 8.
This is what Sheriff Dupnik meant when he called Arizona the "Tombstone of the United States of America." Do we really want OK Corral-style shootouts on the streets of Arizona as a regular occurrence?
"I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstances wherever they want," Dupnik told an international TV audience after the shooting spree. "And that's almost where they are."
When I queried Gould about the potential for a Tucson redux at the Capitol, he did admit, "Yeah, people have some concerns with it."
Asked to respond to charges from the Brady Campaign and opinion pages across the land that Arizona's gun-lovin' climate led to the Tucson tragedy, Gould disagreed.
"It's not the result of that," Gould replied. "It's the result of a deranged lunatic carrying out his actions. There's enough weapons around that, you know, you see people shot in New York City where they have gun control."
Vice was asked about this statement. As you might anticipate, the Brady Campaign does not see eye-to-eye with Gould.
"Arizona has some of the weakest gun laws in the country," he said, "and one of the highest gun-death rates in the nation."
Vice cited a 2010 study by the Violence Policy Center based on 2007 data (the most recent available, according to the study) from the Centers for Disease Control. It tabulates the total gun-death rate per 100,000 for each state.
Arizona comes in ninth, with 14.97 per 100,000. New York is number 46, with 5.07 deaths per 100,000.
The Violence Policy Center concludes, "States with higher gun-ownership rates and weak gun laws have the highest rates of overall gun death."
Seems intuitive. Fewer guns and tougher gun laws equal fewer gun deaths.
Granted, the pro-gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, and others have stats to back up their guns-for-everyone stance.
But it all comes back to the unsettling mug shot of Jared Lee Loughner that accompanies this article, the accounts of those who knew him as an unhinged young man, those nightmarish videos of his, and the twisted, Taxi Driver-like logic of his ramblings.
If there's any lesson to be gleaned from what occurred in Tucson, the bloodshed, the dead and injured, the fear and the unease it has wrought nationwide, it seems to be this:
A system that allows the likes of Jared Lee Loughner unfettered access to firepower is about as insane as the young killer himself.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.