How Arizona happened - Macleans.ca

How Arizona happened

Behind the assassination attempt that shocked America

by
Tragedy in tuscon

Tom Willett/Getty Images

In recent weeks, after she was one of only a handful of Democratic moderates to win re-election amid the great Republican party wave, congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who represents a conservative district in Arizona, told friends that bipartisanship in Washington was getting tougher and that middle-ground voices like hers were being drowned out by the extremes. A high-energy motorcycle aficionado whose youthful looks and sincere manner made her seem younger than her 40 years, she had received death threats, and her constituency office door had been vandalized, possibly shot in.

A former Fulbright scholar, Arizona state senator, and CEO of a tire business founded by her grandfather, Giffords was a rising star in the Democratic party, which she joined after switching from the Republicans in 1999, and was starting to garner national attention. Centrism has long been part of her politics. During the 2006 congressional campaign that sent her to Washington, she wrote a letter to constituents aimed at garnering the votes of independent voters and centrist Republicans. “Growing up, my mother was a Republican and my father was a Democrat—so I learned about ‘bipartisanship’ from an early age,” Giffords wrote. In the House, she was a member of the conservative Democrat “Blue Dog Coalition.” She sought out a middle ground on various issues: she was for tougher border security, but supported immigration reform that would provide undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. She voted for health care reform, but this month voted against Nancy Pelosi for minority leader.

Her dependence on conservative voters made her a prime political target for the Republicans. In March, Giffords’s district appeared on an online map posted by Sarah Palin of 20 congressional races where Democrats in previously Republican districts had voted for health care reform. They were marked with gun-sight crosshairs. On Twitter, Palin tweeted: “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: “Don’t Retreat, Instead—RELOAD!” Later, Giffords’s Republican opponent, a former Marine named Jesse Kelly, advertised a “Target for Victory” campaign event at a shooting range. “Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office,” he asked his supporters. “Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.” The violent imagery worried Giffords during an MSNBC appearance: “We need to realize that the rhetoric, and the firing people up and?.?.?.?for example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s ‘targeted’ list, but the thing is, the way she has it depicted, we’re in the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize that there are consequences to that action.”

But for all that, Giffords was neither bitter nor combative. She did not raise her voice. Perhaps befitting the wife of an astronaut, her attitude was one of calm determination. One of those with whom she shared her concerns, congressional analyst Norman Ornstein, told Maclean’s they talked “all about the coarsening of the discourse, and the danger it poses to the republic.”

Danger, indeed. Last January, Sharron Angle, a Tea Party-backed candidate for the Senate in Nevada, told a radio host that “if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies,” and talked of “taking out” her opponent, Democratic Sen. Harry Reid (the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms). Protesters attending town hall meetings on health care reform in 2009 had carried guns, and a man carrying an assault weapon got within a city block of a presidential speech in Phoenix. The tone continued to concern Giffords. On the night of Jan. 7, she sent an email to a friend, Kentucky’s departing Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson, to congratulate him on his new position at Harvard University. “After you get settled, I would love to talk about what we can do to promote centrism and moderation,” she wrote in an email obtained by the Associated Press. “I am one of only 12 Dems left in a GOP district (the only woman) and think that we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down.”

On the morning of Saturday, Jan. 8, the woman described by many as a voice of reason was gunned down during a meeting with constituents outside a supermarket in Tucson, in a horrific shooting that left her fighting for her life after suffering a bullet wound to her head. Six other people died in the attack, including nine-year-old Christina Green, a Grade 3 student born on Sept. 11, 2001, who had recently joined her school’s student council and was brought to the meeting by a neighbour so she could meet a real politician. John Roll, the state’s chief federal judge, was killed, as was Gifford’s director of outreach, Gabe Zimmerman, and three retirees. Another 13 people were injured. The alleged assailant, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, an erratic loner who had exhibited clear signs of mental illness that had terrified his teachers and classmates at Pima Community College, was captured on the scene while attempting to reload his Glock 9 mm semi-automatic pistol.

It was a shooting that shocked the country, and plunged the United States into a debate about America’s pervasive gun culture, how a deeply troubled individual could so easily fly under the radar and obtain a weapon, and whether the tragedy could transform the increasingly bitter and volatile discourse that has marred American politics—or only make it worse.

Jimmy Luu, receptionist at the Nails Arts salon in Tucson, thought the first shots were firecrackers. Then he heard screams and saw people running through the parking lot in front of the Safeway supermarket, where Giffords was holding one of her regular Congress on Your Corner events. He was afraid one of those running toward the salon was the shooter. His manager locked the door, and everyone ran into the back of the shop.

Fifty metres away, inside the Beyond Bread deli and bakeshop, milling customers and the clatter of plates drowned out the pistol shots. A woman burst through the doors, wide-eyed and hyperventilating. “I thought she was sick,” Elaine Navarro, an employee at the deli, told Maclean’s. “My manager said, ‘Get her a chair.’ ” Navarro fetched one. She asked the woman if she needed water. The woman didn’t answer. She gathered herself and shouted: “Call 911. There’s been a shooting at Safeway.”

The attack was both an attempted political assassination and a mass murder. Giffords was shot first, through the head at point-blank range. She is now in critical condition. The gunman, Loughner, then began shooting at everyone around her. Also among the dead were Phyllis Schneck, a great-grandmother, Dorothy Morris, 76, who died despite her husband’s attempts to shield her with his body, and Dorwin Stoddard, also 76, who threw himself on top of his wife, Mavy, when the shooting started. She was shot three times in the leg but survived.

It appears Loughner specifically targeted Giffords. The FBI says it has recovered from a safe in Loughner’s home an envelope with Giffords’s name written on it, and the words: “I planned ahead” and “my assassination.” Court papers say the envelope also contains “what appears to be Loughner’s signature.” Also in the safe was a letter addressed to Loughner from Giffords, in which she thanked him for attending a constituent event in 2007.

According to Bryce Tierney, a friend of Loughner’s from high school and college who has spoken to Mother Jones magazine, Loughner bore Giffords a grudge for years, one that intensified after he questioned her at a campaign event, asking: “What is government if words have no meaning?” Loughner was furious with Giffords’s answer and complained about it to Tierney. He would mention the congresswoman from time to time in the years that followed, though Tierney says his complaints weren’t based on any political philosophies. He would deride her as a “fake,” and say the government was “f–king us over.”

Tierney says Loughner had also become obsessed with an alternate reality of dreams that he believed a person could inhabit and control. Eventually he bragged that he had learned to fly. Loughner’s recent written postings on the Internet show a similar weak grasp on reality, along with burgeoning paranoia. He accuses the government of brainwashing people by controlling grammar and argues, incoherently, about the need for a new currency.

Those who crossed paths with him found his behaviour disturbing. He scared his classmates and teachers at the community college he attended until this fall, when he was suspended. He accused one instructor of “denying math” because he didn’t accept as accurate the random number Loughner gave in response to an algebra question. He dressed like a rapper one day and a hippie the next. He quizzed staff at the YMCA where he worked out about how they disinfected the bathroom doors. Once he sat in a bathroom for 30 minutes and emerged to ask what year it was.

It’s difficult to find order and lucidity in Loughner’s various statements. But one thing is tragically certain: somehow this troubled young man managed to walk into the Sportsman’s Warehouse in northern Tucson, buy a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol and later, possibly through the Internet, large-capacity ammunition magazines that increase the Glock’s capacity from around 15 rounds to 31. A decade-long federal ban against such magazines expired in 2004 and was never renewed by Congress. Loughner was able to empty one magazine as he entered the annals of U.S. mass murderers, but was tackled by bystanders before he could continue his killing spree. “Why is it so easy to get a Glock at a store?” asked Elaine Richardson, a former Arizona state senator and a long-time friend of Gabrielle Giffords who served as a bridesmaid in her 2007 wedding to astronaut Mark Kelly. “We really need to look at our gun laws.” Not to mention America’s gun culture—and what it has wrought.

The numbers are staggering.

Since 1776, a total of 580,000 U.S. troops have been killed in action, including the carnage of the Civil War. In just four decades ending in 2008, the number of firearms deaths in the U.S. was 1.3 million.

According to the most recent annual data, in 2007 31,224 people died in the U.S. of gunshot wounds—12,632 of them murdered (other causes of death included suicide and unintentional deaths). A further 66,768 people survived gun injuries—44,466 of them sustained in an attack. Over the past three decades, on average about 20 mass shootings—defined as having at least four slain victims—have occurred annually in the United States, claiming nearly 100 lives each year. Some have been worse than others. March 2005: seven people dead in the Red Lake, Minn., massacre. April 2007: 32 killed in the Virginia Tech massacre. March 2009: 10 people killed in the Geneva County massacre in Alabama. April 2009: Binghamton, New York, 14 dead.

The U.S. has an estimated 283 million guns in civilian hands: approximately one-quarter of American adults own a licensed gun.

In 1968, in a decade that saw the assassinations of president John F. Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and senator Robert Kennedy, Congress enacted the Gun Control Act, which identified categories of individuals considered too high-risk to own a gun. On Nov. 30, 1993, the act was updated when president Bill Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, named after James Brady, the aide who was injured during the 1981 attempted assassination of president Ronald Reagan. It mandates a federal background check, for such things as serious criminal convictions or documented mental illness, on any person who attempts to purchase a firearm from a licensed firearms distributor. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, since the Brady Act went into effect in 1994 through Dec. 31, 2009, almost 108 million applications for firearms transfers or permits were subject to background checks. More than 1.9 million applications were denied. In 2009, 1.4 per cent of the 10.8 million applications for firearms transfers or permits were denied by the FBI (67,000) or by state and local agencies (83,000).

However, the perfunctory background checks only apply for federally licensed gun dealers. And in Loughner’s case, though many people worried about his behaviour, those concerns appear not to have been shared publicly. In 2008, Loughner tried to join the military and was rejected because of a failed drug test (marijuana), but the army kept that private. In 2007, Loughner was arrested for possessing drug paraphernalia, but the charge was dismissed after he completed a drug diversion program, leaving him with a clean record. Pima Community College apparently shared its concerns about Loughner only with his parents. So, with no public marks against him, Loughner passed a federal background check and bought his Glock on Nov. 30.

(Unlicensed gun exchanges between private parties, meanwhile, are left to the discretion of the state. “In the United States, the only place that a background check is required by federal law is when a licence is required by the federal government,” says Becca Knox, director of research for the Brady Campaign, an organization that lobbies for tougher gun laws. “I can sell a gun legally to my neighbour. I don’t have a licence, I’m selling to another person without a licence, I just sell the gun, there’s no paperwork required.” Nowhere is this legislative loophole more exploited than at gun shows, where in many states people can trade firearms without licences.)

Arizona’s patchwork of gun laws is especially lax. And Arizonans’ affinity for firearms stretches far back. The 1910 state constitution reads: “The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself or the state shall not be impaired,” although it does add that “nothing in this section shall be construed as authorizing individuals or corporations to organize, maintain, or employ an armed body of men.” Any law-abiding Arizonan older than 18 is permitted to buy or possess a firearm (to buy a handgun from a federal licensee, as per federal law, the purchaser must be 21). In Arizona, other than the Brady background check, no registration is necessary to buy a firearm.

As long as an Arizonan is not drinking, they can carry a firearm in bars. As long as it’s not loaded and the bearer remains in their vehicle, Arizonans can possess a concealed weapon on school grounds. Guns are allowed in the state Capitol and other public buildings. Arizona’s gun laws were relaxed further last year when Gov. Jan Brewer signed a National Rifle Association-backed bill repealing a state law that required gun owners to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

Now, with the Tucson shooting, the state’s lax regulations have attracted national attention, even as the inevitable argument over gun control heats up across America. It is a sadly familiar debate. “The gun laws in Arizona are among the weakest in the country and we saw some of the consequences of that in the shooting,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign, in a video released on his website. “We make it too easy for dangerous people to get guns in this country; we have too few laws in the books restricting dangerous and irresponsible people from getting guns. And when we see the gun lobby pushing more guns for more people and more places more of the time, we’re only asking for more problems.”

Nonsense, responded gun lobbyists—a better armed citizenry is the answer, not a bigger problem. “It didn’t sound like there was anybody able to take action,” said Larry Pratt of the Tucson shooting. Pratt, who for 26 years has been the executive director of Gun Owners of America, a national pro-gun organization of 300,000, added: “From the get-go, it appeared there was not an armed citizen that was able to resist, and as it turns out, that was the sad fact of it. The event took 10 to 12 seconds and the police got there in 10 to 12 minutes. Seems to me those two numbers explain why an armed people is important if we’re going to control the criminal element.”

Arizonans certainly seem to agree. In the wake of the Tucson shooting, sales of Glock handguns, at about US$500 each, surged in the state, with some buyers worried about the possibility of new gun control laws. Ironically, Giffords, a native Arizonan, was herself a supporter of gun rights. Once, when asked about the vandalization of her office, she quipped, “I have a Glock 9 mm and I’m a pretty good shot.”

Such was the enviroNment in which Loughner lived. Now, along with the newly intensified debate over firearms, the quieter multi-decade arguments over American law and policy toward the mentally ill is also beginning to revive. Psychological problems are a huge problem in the U.S.: a 2004 study by the World Health Organization found that 26 per cent of Americans had some form of mental disorder, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. In Loughner’s case, psychiatrists who have commented have no apparent doubt that he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, though no one yet knows if he has ever received a formal diagnosis. Tierney told Mother Jones magazine that the shooter had been a “normal kid” in early adolescence, developing strange preoccupations and disordered thinking only in his junior and senior years of high school—the classic age pattern of schizophrenia.

Loughner did not, to say the least, fit the “never thought he was capable of this” stereotype. Not only was his time at Pima Community College (from summer 2005 to fall 2010) marked by disruptive behaviour, he had run-ins with campus police, and aimed inappropriate remarks at women. And as well as his trail of bizarre, confusing Internet forum postings, Loughner’s ever-dwindling number of friends grew concerned last spring when he began to display an interest in firearms.

One classmate, Lynda Sorenson, showed the Washington Post emails she had written about Loughner last year: on June 14, she told a friend, “We have a mentally unstable person in the class that scares the living crap out of me. He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon.” Remarkably, Loughner was deemed too weird even for a UFO conspiracy website, AboveTop­Secret.com, where one fellow commenter told him, “Seek help before you hurt yourself or others or start taking your medications again, please.”

Even if Loughner had been inclined to reach out for aid, though, he may have found it difficult to get. The trend toward deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, often said to have begun with the discovery of chlorpromazine in the 1950s, is still marching on in Arizona, according to leading schizophrenia specialist and “treatment advocate” E. Fuller Torrey. Arizona does have strong laws allowing families to coerce individuals into in-patient care if they represent a danger to themselves or others. What it doesn’t have, in a time of austerity, are the resources. Torrey estimates that the state has 5.9 psychiatric beds per 100,000 people—only Nevada has fewer—and that of the 50,000 or so schizophrenia sufferers in the state, 25,000 are untreated at any given moment.

Torrey may be underestimating the problem. Mental health staff in Pima County, whose seat is Tucson, told the Huffington Post that they had been hit particularly hard by state budget cuts necessitated by Arizona’s ongoing financial crisis. Of the 15,000 people receiving public mental health services in the county at the beginning of 2010, HuffPo reported, 3,000 had been turfed because they were not “actively displaying symptoms”; another 3,800 lost everything but basic insurance coverage for generic medications because they were found to be living above the federal poverty line.

Promoters of “de-stigmatization” of the mentally ill are quick to point out that schizophrenia is not a “cause” of or an “explanation” for violence. In the sense in which the word “cause” is normally used in social science, however, this is a curious claim. Schizophrenics are no more dangerous to the public peace than anyone else—if they take their medications regularly and avoid substance abuse. Unfortunately, they are not, considered as a group, good at accomplishing either thing without onerous levels of supervision; and because latent schizophrenia is still all but impossible to diagnose, every schizophrenic person will go through an initial phase of psychotic flowering during which he is not yet being treated. This may, indeed, have been Loughner’s predicament. Torrey, who is perhaps literally the last person on Earth who could be accused of indifference or cruelty to schizophrenia sufferers, offers the shocking estimate that “individuals with severe mental illnesses are probably responsible for approximately 10 per cent of homicides in the United States.”

Loughner’s anti-government ramblings and belief that currency must be backed by gold or silver do resonate with the outer fringes of the extreme right and some militia movements. But no evidence has emerged to suggest that Loughner belonged to or even felt affinity with any of these movements. One friend referred to him as a “left-wing pothead.” But the fact that he tried to kill a politician, and that his attack comes during a time of overheated political rhetoric from both politicians and pundits, has led many to wonder if anti-government rage might have contributed to the killings here on Saturday.

Tucson’s Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik suggested as much, singling out his home state of Arizona, where debate and rancour over immigration and President Barack Obama’s health care reforms have been particularly intense. “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” he told reporters on Saturday. “And unfortunately Arizona has become, I think, sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

Giffords, a Democrat in a state that leans Republican, has been at the centre of this political storm. At a public event in 2009, a protester waving a “Don’t Tread on Me” sign showed up with a holstered gun, which fell to the pavement in front of Giffords. Palin targeted her. Despite this, Giffords was re-elected in November, narrowly defeating a Tea Party-backed candidate. But it was a tough campaign, and one, says a colleague, whose tone bothered her.

“The last time I saw her, she and I were in front of a grocery store here in Tucson, ringing a bell for the Salvation Army,” Bob Walkup, the Republican mayor of Tucson, told Maclean’s. “What you do is you put on a funny little hat and you stand there and you greet people. While we’re doing this, we were talking about how nice it is that we still have the chance to interface with people and say ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Have a great holiday.’ And I know she was comfortable with that. But she was still talking about her campaign and how difficult her campaign was. It was an issue for her.”

It’s an issue, too, for many who came to vigils in Tucson for Giffords and other victims of the shooting. “Stop the ugly violent rhetoric,” read one sign place amongst a carpet of candles and flowers outside Giffords’s district office. “When someone is that mentally unstable, it doesn’t take much to push somebody like that over the line,” James Reading, a construction worker, told Maclean’s at another vigil outside Tucson’s University Medical Center, where Giffords and other victims of the shooting are being treated. “Preaching the hate and the disrespect and the constant calling people names—socialist this or that—it’s ridiculous. Someone that disturbed doesn’t need a whole lot to set himself off. He’s looking for someone to go off on. I wish I could say I was surprised it happened. But I thought it was going to happen a long time ago.”

Former state senator Richardson concurs. “Did you listen to what the sheriff said? I agree with everything he said,” she told Maclean’s. Ten years ago, she says, she and Giffords and several other politicians would regularly go out for dinner Monday nights in Phoenix, the state capital, where they worked during the week. Both Giffords and Richardson are Democrats, but their weekly dinners usually included at least one Republican. Such casual fraternization reflected cross-party co-operation that she says no longer exists. “I just think the political climate has been getting worse and worse,” she says. “I don’t know that you can find a moderate in the legislature today. You don’t have the congeniality, the camaraderie that we really enjoyed.”

Richardson doesn’t draw a direct link between heated political rhetoric and Loughner’s attempted assassination of Giffords, but she describes it as a contributing factor. “We really need to look at our mental health system,” she says. “If you’re not educating your people the way they need to be educated, and they listen to this rhetoric going on television about how we’ve got to get this person, or how this person is on a hit list, and your gun is accessible, what do we expect?”

As Maclean’s went to press, doctors in Tucson announced that Giffords, who miraculously had been able to communicate with doctors and others after the shooting by squeezing their hands, was “holding her own.” And in Tucson and elsewhere, the questioning continued. Paul Cunningham, a Tucson Democratic councilman and friend of Giffords, said Sarah Palin should feel guilty for placing crosshairs on Giffords’s district—but only because it was foolish and inappropriate, not because it had anything to do with the weekend’s mass murder.

“This is a disturbing man,” he said of Loughner. “This is the clock-tower guy in Texas. This was not a politically motivated assassination more than it’s a very disturbed person getting pushed over the edge, and what the trigger is is anybody’s guess.” Cunningham is similarly unsure that stricter gun control might have averted this tragedy. “There’s really no pragmatic solutions. It’s really hard to go, ‘Well, the guy’s mentally ill enough not to have a gun?’ You don’t know that. The kid got rejected by the army. People thought he could be potentially dangerous. Does that infringe on his Second Amendment rights? I don’t know. I’d love to be able to say that the wacko with the gun is going to get stopped. But I think as we’ve seen in America time and again, every couple of years, it happens.”

True. But wackos shooting politicians is rare, and inevitably means that assigning blame will be driven by politics as well. That does not sit well with Republican Andy Tobin, Arizona House majority leader. Regarding the opposition, he told Maclean’s that, “Quite frankly, we agree more than we disagree, and where we don’t agree we’re not going to cower from that conversation. I would caution those who are drawing conclusions to take some time to let our state heal and let us get all the facts. And those who are trying to make political hay over a tragic situation, especially a little girl, I would say shame on you to assume that too much conversation has led to this. These are difficult times, and lawmakers are not going to shy away from the big issues of the day. Those issues are the drift of our nation to more government and less freedom.”

Asked if political debate in America is no longer a conversation but a shouting match, Tobin responded: “It’s all about who shoots first, if you pardon the expression. Some have said that now Republicans can sit on the back of the bus. Do we have to go over the history of who said what to who?”

Indeed, while Democrats have blamed Republicans for their violent imagery, they have not been innocent either. Voices on the left had compared president George W. Bush to Hitler. And President Obama himself, who had campaigned on uniting “red” and “blue” America, has used loaded language. At a fundraiser in Philadelphia in June 2008, he said he was tough enough to take on Republican attacks. “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” Obama said. “Because from what I understand, folks in Philly like a good brawl. I’ve seen Eagles fans.”

But Saturday’s tragedy jolted some lawmakers into introspection. Lamar Alexander, a Republican senator from Tennessee, told CNN’s State of the Union, “We ought to tone it down, treat each other with great respect, respect each other’s ideas, and even on difficult issues like immigration or taxes or health care law, do our best not to inflame passions.” A Democratic senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, said members of Congress need to keep political discussion at a “higher level” and not “descend into even these images of violence or violent reaction.”

Some lawmakers went so far as to call for limits on speech. South Carolina congressman James Clyburn, the third most senior Democrat in Congress, urged a return to the Fairness Doctrine—a 1949 policy that required licensed broadcasters to cover controversial public issues in a manner deemed equitable and balanced by the Federal Communications Commission (Reagan abolished the policy in 1987). “Free speech is as free speech does,” Clyburn said, according to Charleston’s Post and Courier newspaper. “You cannot yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre and call it free speech, and some of what I hear, and is being called free speech, is worse than that.”

Others recoiled at the idea that speech causes violence. The comedian Jon Stewart, who last year hosted a “Rally to Restore Sanity” on the National Mall that demonstrated against overheated political rhetoric, stopped short of blaming it for the shooting. On Monday’s Daily Show, he said, “I wouldn’t blame our political rhetoric any more than I would blame heavy metal music for Columbine,” referring to the 1999 massacre at a Colorado high school that left 12 innocent students and one teacher dead. But Stewart added that political discourse should be more responsible. “It would be really nice if the ramblings of crazy people didn’t in any way resemble how we actually talk to each other on TV,” he said.

There were indications that lawmakers were becoming more careful in their choice of words, including scrutiny of the title of the Republicans’ legislation that would repeal the Obama health care law: the Repeal the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act. After lawmakers held a moment of silence in honour of the Tucson shooting’s victims in front of the U.S. Capitol on Monday, the incoming chairman of the energy and commerce committee, Republican Fred Upton of Michigan, was asked by reporters whether the title of the bill should be changed. “Um, it’s a new question,” Upton said. “It’s, you know, we’ll see.”

And there were other signs that the most militant political rhetoric was becoming unpalatable. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, touted as a potential presidential candidate rival to Sarah Palin, distanced himself from her map with the gun-sights symbols. “It wouldn’t have been my style to put the crosshairs on there,” Pawlenty said Tuesday on ABC’s Good Morning America. And, he told the New York Times, “I wouldn’t have done that.”

Elsewhere, though, the airwaves remained hot. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh continued to lash out at the political left. “In continuing this template and narrative that the Tea Party and Sarah Palin, that talk radio and Fox News, are inspiring violence, they forget that, in the process of so doing, they are attacking what is now a majority of America,” Limbaugh said. “They are accusing a majority of Americans of being accomplices to murder.”

Congressional analyst Ornstein, who had discussed such rhetoric with Giffords, is doubtful that the tragedy would lead to any lasting changes in gun laws, or laws dealing with the mentally ill, or even to the political tone. “I do think this will change the discourse in the short run, toning down the worst excesses,” he told Maclean’s. “And that might last for a few months at the outside.”