Thoughts on a tragedy

I CAN OFFER no more than another voice of sympathy to the families of the nine-year-old girl and the other five people killed as well as those injured with Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the Tucson rampage Saturday. You didn’t have to know anyone involved to recoil in horror at the news, but the description of the event at which the shootings took place, a “Congress on Your Corner” gathering, made that shopping plaza seem a little closer to home.

The term “Congress of Your Corner” surfaced here after the election of Representative, now Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand in 2006. Ms. Gillibrand hadn’t been in office but a few weeks when she announced her first Congress of Your Corner. It seemed like a novel catch phrase at the time. If you Google the term now, it pops up all over the country, used by many members of the House of Representatives as shorthand for public meetings with constituents with no limits on what gets discussed. Voters expect elected officials to operate this way.

Despite angry words aimed at Rep. Scott Murphy, Ms. Gillibrand’s successor, during the healthcare debate, the Congress on Your Corner events of his that I attended never prompted me to worry about violence. It’s likely that Mr. Murphy, a public figure, attracted his share of hate mail, but it didn’t make news, and I’ve found it reassuring that our representatives have treated the deep divisions in the district as an incentive to make themselves more available to the public. Undoubtedly our new congressman, Chris Gibson, will continue this tradition. He’s seen firsthand how violence, chaos and fear can smother the political process.

As the news of the shootings broke Saturday, it seemed to me at first that the sheriff in Tucson had it right when he condemned talk show hosts who thrive on anger — their own and their listeners’, saying they bore some responsibility for the shootings. But as much as some of those rants get under my skin, I had to admit I know folks who listen to a steady diet of right wing programming, and they are people you want at your house if you have a fire or some other emergency. I know they will be there for me.

I wish we had a way to determine whether or to what degree hate speech incites someone like the young man who shot all those people in Arizona. But we don’t, and while there are good reasons to deplore a business model that prospers from emphasizing the things that divide us, there’s no evidence for a direct connection between that business and the actions of one individual who, by all accounts, suffers from profound mental illness.

That begs the question of how someone so ill could legally obtain a firearm like the Glock pistol equipped with a 33-shot clip used to kill and injure people last weekend in Arizona. That state has far less restrictive laws than New York, though even here, where the laws are tougher, people find ways to obtain weapons. The point is not whether we can ask lawmakers to eliminate all risk — that’s an unachievable goal. But government’s role is to protect us. So we permit the government to say that certain people may not board an airplane; that some may not drive; that some are not allowed contact with children; that some may not own a firearm. Because these restrictions don’t apply to most adults, we accept them as reasonable attempts to ensure public safety.

I don’t know whether current knowledge of mental illness allows medical professionals to assess more effectively which sick people should never own a firearm. But if there are new tools available, this is the moment for the federal government to explore how to use them. The idea is not to subject every gun owner to a new form of mental health screening, but instead to develop a better system of identifying the mentally ill people unable to handle guns in ways that are safe for them and others.

Gun rights groups will call this idea a threat. That’s their role. Others will dismiss it, saying tragedies happen regardless. They’re right. But I hope someone with unassailable credentials, somebody like our new congressman, would have the political wisdom to press his colleagues in the new House majority for an investigation of ways the country can reasonably upgrade protection for members of Congress and the 3rd graders who attend their events. 

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