What’s the matter with Arizona?

Why the Giffords shooting isn’t out of character for the desert state

Content image

Having recently returned from Washington, where she was sworn into her third term in the House of Representatives, Gabrielle Giffords and her aides arrived at a Tucson Safeway to meet and greet her constituents on the morning of January 8, 2011. As one of Arizona’s more conservative Democrats and the only Jewish woman in the state’s history to serve in Congress, Giffords was a popular centrist politician in a state whose political representatives have often gone off the ideological deep end.

When the news spread that Jared Lee Loughner, 22, had allegedly turned a gun on the crowd, killing six and wounding 14, with Giffords as his intended target, it was greeted with shock and disbelief. How could America have fallen so far? Could the national debate have grown so vitriolic that people now turn to their guns to express their dissatisfaction with the order of things?

Perhaps such utter disbelief is a little naïve. After all, as Stephen Lemons of Phoenix News described Arizona, it is a place where “there are very real ideas at war with each other.”

Giffords herself represents Arizona’s conflicting political dichotomies. She is a hawkish “blue dog” Democrat in favour of tighter border security. She has defended SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration bill, calling it a cry for help from a state that was desperate for action on comprehensive immigration reform. Arizonan journalist Terry Greene Sterling explains that while she is by no means a polarizing figure in the state’s politics, “she walked an increasingly political tightrope in her sprawling southeastern Arizona district.” Her constituency, Sterling says, was a loose patchwork of “employees of military bases, Minutemen, retirees, borderland townsfolk, meth dealers, Tucson suburbanites and cattle ranchers.”

In Arizona, even law enforcement is tainted by the state’s divisive politics. Pima County Sherriff Clarence Dupnik, a friend of Giffords’s and an opponent of SB 1070, said in a press conference following the shooting that Arizona is a “Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” In contrast, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of neighbouring Maricopa County is a militant opponent of illegal immigration. He has regularly rounded up Hispanic people suspected of being illegal immigrants and thrown them into Tent City, a Guantanamo-like detention centre that even he has described as a “concentration camp.” His harsh tactics have made him the subject of a Federal Grand Jury investigation for civil rights violations.

Gun ownership in Arizona is not as politically divisive an issue as it is in the rest of the United States. While critical of the state’s lax gun laws and draconian immigration policies, Sherriff Dupnik has also advised Pima residents to arm themselves, saying the Tucson Police Department doesn’t have the resources to protect residents. A strong supporter of the second amendment, Congresswoman Giffords also owns a gun and has described herself as “a pretty good shot.” Her weapon of choice is a Glock 9, the same make of gun that Loughner allegedly used to shoot her through the back of the head at point-blank range.

During the 2010 mid-term election campaign, Nevada Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle invoked a troubling and archaic interpretation of the constitutional right to bear arms. Angle’s supporters, she warned, were increasingly looking to “Second Amendment remedies” as a means to “turn this country around.” The rhetorical symbolism of the gun used by frontier state conservatives is not a recent trend. In 1961, Arizona’s native son and archconservative Barry Goldwater declared “we’re not going to get the Negro vote as a block in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.”

In the meantime, Arizona has kept its law books clear of all but the most rudimentary restrictions on gun ownership. Last January, Governor Jan Brewer signed a law allowing Arizonans to carry concealed weapons without a permit. This law allowed Loughner, reportedly motivated by political passions, to buy a Glock 19 handgun almost a year later. He passed the instant background check despite a history of unstable behaviour (he had been suspended from Pima Community College due to “mental problems”), because his name never appeared on the National Instant Background Check System.

Decades of financial mismanagement have left Arizona teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, forcing it to make massive cuts to social services, including mental health counseling. It is now a state where vigilantism rules the border, and where guns are freely allowed in universities and the state legislature. Loughner’s crime may be no one’s fault but his own, but is it really that much of a surprise that it happened in Arizona?