Gabrielle Giffords, Tucson and the gun culture

By Dennis Gruending

Rep. Gabrielle GiffordsOn January 8th a young man Jared Lee Loughner opened fire with a Glock 19 handgun during a political event held in the parking lot of a Tucson, Arizona mall. He killed six people and wounded 14, including Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. He shot her in the head. She is being treated for a serious brain injury and is fortunate to be alive. The debate following this tragic event has focused on the “heroes” who attempted to disarm Loughner; on whether he is mentally ill; and whether the increasingly toxic language being used in American political debate might have prompted his actions. Hardly anyone, it seems, is having second thoughts about the fact that almost anyone in the U.S. can buy and carry a gun. President Barrack Obama studiously avoided that point in his otherwise eloquent speech at a memorial event in Tucson.

Far from having doubts about the disastrous effects of the nation’s gun laws, or lack of them, there were calls in the wake of the shootings to make it even easier for people to carry concealed firearms. Arizona state representative Jack Harper was quoted as saying, “When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim.” This implies that someone at the shooting scene who was armed would have shot Jared Lee Loughner before he killed and wounded others.

Guns on the scene

Timothy Egan, a New York Times columnist, points out that there were others on the scene who were carrying guns. One of them, a young man named Joseph Zamudio, was leaving a drugstore when he saw what was happening in the mall’s parking lot. He rushed to the scene with his semiautomatic pistol at the ready. He saw people wrestling on the ground, including a man with a gun. “I kind of assumed he was the shooter,” Zamudio said in an interview. Then, “everyone said, ‘no, no, it’s this guy.” Had he pulled the trigger, he would have shot a person who was struggling with Loughner. Zamudio added that he felt “very lucky” to have avoided shooting an innocent person.

Columnist Egan says, “It defies logic, as this case shows once again, that an average citizen with a gun is going to disarm a crazed killer. For one thing, these kinds of shootings happen far too suddenly for even the quickest marksman to get a draw. For another, your typical gun hobbyist lacks training in how to react in a violent scrum.” He adds: “. . . the Tucson shootings should discredit the canard that we need more guns at school, in the workplace, even in Congress.”

But that is exactly what certain American politicians are proposing. Some Arizona legislators want university faculty and students to be allowed to carry concealed weapons at school. A Texas Republican representative has proposed a bill to allow fellow members to carry firearms into the Capitol Building in Washington. The argument — and it has echoes among some gun enthusiasts in Canada — is that we would all be safer if more (not fewer) people carried guns. Indeed, I heard those comments made by an American professor who addressed an angry pro-gun rally on Parliament Hill in the late 1990s. He warned thousands of demonstrators who had assembled that crime and homicide rates in Canada would spike if our government did not make it easier for people to carry guns to protect themselves.

Recent studies

Columnist Egan cites two recent studies to show that this is a dangerous fantasy. In one survey, epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine reviewed hundreds of muggings and assaults. They found that those people with guns were four times more likely to be shot when confronted by an armed assailant than those without guns.

Egan also cites a Harvard University study, which illustrates that states with the highest rates of gun ownership also have much higher gun death rates than those where only a small percentage of people carry arms. Hawaii, where only 9.7 per cent of the residents own guns, has the lowest gun death rate in the country. Louisiana, where 45 per cent of the public is armed, has the highest. Arizona, where it is easy to get a concealed weapons permit, is one of the top 10 states for gun ownership and death rates by firearms.

Brady Foundation

Widespread gun violence is all too common in the United States. James Brady was an aide to Ronald Reagan when in 1980 a gunman tried to kill the president. Reagan took a bullet in the lung but Brady was shot in the head.  He survived although his health and physical abilities are diminished. He and his wife founded the Brady Foundation to Prevent Gun Violence. He admits it has been a lonely walk and says, “You can’t win with a one-man movement.”

Consider these statistics from the Brady Foundation:

  • There are 283 million guns in civilian hands in the U.S. (the U.S. population is 309 million). One-quarter of American adults own at least one gun.
  • In 2007, there were 31,000 gun deaths in the U.S., and 12,600 of those were homicides (in Canada there are about 200 killings a year with guns).
  • The firearm homicide rate in the U.S. is 19.5 times higher than rates in 22 other populous high-income countries combined.
  • Over a million people have been killed with guns in the U.S. since 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.

So why, do legislators respond to numbers such as these and the recent a deadly shooting spree in Tucson by encouraging people to buy and carry even more guns? Is this attitude something perverse in the American psyche? Or is it driven by money and power? The gun lobby in the U.S is rich and formidable. It can make or break politicians, and it does.  Guns are big business. Each year, about 4.5 million new firearms, including approximately 2 million handguns, are sold in the United States. There is a lucrative export market as well, much of it illegal. A U.S. government report acknowledges that most of the firearms used in the brutal Mexican drug wars originate in the United States.  More than 20,000, or 87 per cent, of the guns seized by Mexican authorities over the past five years have been traced back to the United States. Another government report concludes, “handguns smuggled from the USA constitute a large but unknown share of handguns used in crime in Canada . . .”

The trade goes well beyond Mexico and Canada. The Centre for American Progress, a progressive think tank, estimates that about 875 million small arms are in circulation worldwide, and that only about a third are in the hands of legally constituted security forces. The weapons are used around the world in civil wars, organized criminal violence, and terrorist activities.

Religious leaders

One waits, mostly in vain, for a strong statements from religious leaders on American gun laws. The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not once refer to such laws in his official comments following the Tucson shooting. The United Methodist Church Agency was much more direct: “[We are] deeply concerned with gun violence,” the Methodists said in a statement. “Until we make gun ownership a more responsible process, these tragic events will continue to occur.” On the Southern Baptist Convention website, a blog article discussing the Tucson shootings (without mentioning gun laws) had placed directly below it an advertisement by a company offering self-defence firearms training.

6 thoughts on “Gabrielle Giffords, Tucson and the gun culture

  1. Thank you for your research and blog, Dennis. The frenzy of buying guns in Tucson after the massacre is beyond reason and belief!

    Why don’t we hear more from police supporting tighter gun control laws? Even the word control is inflammatory, isn’t it.


  2. Dennis. we owe you big time for all the hard facts and figures that you gathered, and I really wanted to see. I was surprised to read that the American Bishops apparently had no comment on the havoc that took place in Tuscon. Dare I say that the least they could have done would be to suggest that all those who feel it necessary to carry a gun, turn their weapons in for a piece of rope, as Jesus once used. It could then be used to chase the money-changers out of Wall Street!

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comment Leo. The American bishops’ conference did comment on the shootings, and actually it was quite a good statement as far as it went — except that it did not mention anything about the gun laws, or lack of them, in the U.S.


  3. Very good piece. There was an interview with a U.S.military officer (retired) from Tuscon who said at minimum how could society permit an individual who failed an army entry test on mental issues – then be able to go out and buy such a weapon! I’m afraid the President addresses a Congress tonight that can’t buy the legitimacy of his election two years ago, never mind dealing with such a fundamental issue.


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