Longform

'Til Death Do Us Part: Arizona's Dangerous Love Affair with Guns

The fatal shooting of a lawyer and a businessman on January 30 just outside a Central Phoenix office building would have been bigger news on any other day.

But it happened to occur at the exact time that Mark Kelly, husband of former Arizona Congresswoman and mass-shooting victim Gabrielle Giffords, gave testimony in Washington, D.C., during a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence.

Viewers already struggling with memories of the January 8, 2011, massacre in Tucson, where six died and 13 were wounded in a hail of bullets, suddenly had another reason to view Arizona as gun-crazy.

The timing of the fresh murders only seemed to emphasize the point of gun-control advocates at the hearing, which itself was a reaction to the classroom bloodbath on December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20-year-old Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster AR-15 to slay 20 little kids and six adults.

Attorney Mark Hummels, who died two days after the Phoenix shooting, was a likable, well-known lawyer in town. (New Times mentioned him in a December blog post for his defending Cox Communications against a lawsuit by Joel Fox, the scandal-plagued former Maricopa County Sheriff's Office captain.)

The businessman, Steve Singer, was CEO of Scottsdale-based Fusion Contact Centers. The shooter, Arthur Harmon, had been involved in a legal dispute with Singer, angry over payment for contract work he'd done for the company. A day after gunning down the two men and wounding a bystander, Harmon was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Mesa.

There was a 100 percent chance that gun violence would occur somewhere in the nation during the hearing. The United States recorded 8,583 firearm murders in 2011, most recent FBI statistics show. That's an average of about one per hour.

Murders with firearms are slightly more common in Arizona than in other states, though the state still doesn't crack the top 10. In 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the state ranked 13th in firearm murders per capita. Phoenix, the sixth-largest city in the country, has a murder about every third day. But most murders and shooting incidents don't involve people like Hummels and Singer — as in other cities, murderers and their victims tend to come from lower economic classes.

Before Kelly announced the news of the shooting to U.S. senators and millions of TV viewers, Giffords spoke to the panel briefly in a halting voice, with obvious effort. Giffords beat the odds by surviving the bullet that passed through her head, but she was left blind in one eye and paralyzed in her right arm, and she suffers motor and speech impairments from her brain injury.

"Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important," she said. "Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you."

After the Newtown horror, Kelly and Giffords formed an activist group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, which they hope will raise millions of dollars to wage battle with the well-funded National Rifle Association. They haven't been specific about the type of new laws and equipment restrictions they support and didn't return calls for this article.

But a poll on the ARS website suggests that their issues dovetail with those raised and presented to President Barack Obama following meetings of a task force led by Vice President Joe Biden. The issues include the potential banning of "assault weapons" and gun magazines that have a "high capacity," as well as requiring background checks for buyers in private sales of weapons.

Later in the hearing, Kelly was asked by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) whether "better" background checks would make Arizona and the nation safer.

"Absolutely, Senator," the retired astronaut replied. Then, with a twinge of excitement, he relayed the news that "while we were having this hearing . . . in Phoenix, Arizona, there is another what seems to be possibly a shooting with multiple victims."

The interruption by Kelly became its own story that day, with national news outlets and blogs noting the coincidence.

"Gabby Giffords' hearing today interrupted with news of mass shooting in Phoenix," reads a headline from a post in the Daily Kos blog.

"Irony alert," begins a headline on a story by Matt Wilstein of Mediaite.com.

But it wasn't really ironic.

It also wasn't ironic that Kelly and Giffords, who overnight became the country's two most famous gun-control advocates, are honest enough to admit that they both own guns. Giffords, as was widely reported before she was shot, owns a semi-automatic Glock similar to the one used by her assailant.

Such things are what the country has come to expect from the Wild West state of Arizona.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern