The tragic events in Tucson this weekend have focused attention on a lot of things that need to be examined—dialing down political rhetoric and hate speech, tightening gun control laws, and having better systems in place to address the problems of the mentally ill.
But one thing we should be careful about not changing is the ability of the public to meet and speak with their elected officials.
Members of Congress and their staffs are justifiably shaken by the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others, including the death of one of her aides. Some evaluation of the way members of Congress conduct public meetings and the security precautions they take is in order. But it would be a serious mistake to limit the access constituents have to their government representatives. [Photo Gallery: Gabrielle Giffords Shooting in Arizona.]
As part of the work I am doing for a book on independent voters and the extreme partisanship which has overtaken politics in this country, I conducted a series of focus groups this fall with average voters. One of the messages I heard most frequently in all of the sessions was that voters feel disconnected from their elected officials and from the system. They believe big money talks, and while campaign donors have ready access to members of Congress, the average person is often ignored and has no voice.
When members of Congress are in Washington, they most often do hear from lobbyists and the representatives of special interests. It is typically only when they return home that they hear the voices of the citizens.
After the town hall meetings in the summer of 2009 when many members were harangued, often by Tea Party members, over the Democratic healthcare proposal, Democrats were advised by their leaders not to hold such meetings.
But shutting down access and debate is not the answer.
There is a responsibility on both sides. Citizens and political activists have a responsibility to behave civilly and cut out the inflammatory language and symbolism. Elected officials must continue to make themselves available to hear both the good and the bad about their positions and the performance of Congress.
Politico reports that several members are now planning to carry firearms when they are back in their districts. Both Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz and North Carolina Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler, who hold concealed carry permits, told Politico they will be carrying their guns in their home districts for protection. [Read more articles about gun control and gun rights.]
Shuler, who received a death threat in 2009, says he is planning to carry his weapon more often and boost security at his district events. He’s even encouraging his staffers to get their own concealed carry permits.
But I don’t think more guns are the answer. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, in the wake of the Arizona tragedy, has been quite eloquent about some of the potential causes, including the easy availability of guns in his state. In a press conference over the weekend, he likened Arizona to Tombstone, the Wild West silver mining town not far from Tucson and the site of the bloody shootout at the O.K. Corral.
Arizonans can legally buy guns without licenses, and are able to carry concealed weapons without a permit. The state even bans cities from passing their own, stricter laws. Dupnik has been critical of a bill being considered by the state legislature that would force schools to allow guns on campus.
The deranged alleged shooter Jared Loughner had a semi-automatic weapon and enough ammunition on him to potentially kill almost 100 people. Had he not been tackled and subdued by several heroes on the scene, the death toll could have been much higher.
Dupnik also has made some thoughtful observations about the level of political rhetoric in Arizona and the nation, which may have contributed to the event. [Take the poll: Is Political Rhetoric To Blame for Arizona Shooting?]
It’s almost certain that Loughner was an unstable individual who didn’t get the help he needed. But it is also likely that the highly-charged political rhetoric in Arizona didn’t help.
As Dupnik said, “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous… it's not without consequences.”
On an appearance on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd Monday morning, Dupnik said people are looking to their government officials to work together and solve the nation’s problems, and right now they are not getting that.
How terribly sad and ironic that one of the members of Congress who was trying to do that very thing, and trying to avoid inflammatory rhetoric, would be the victim of such a horrific attack at the moment she was reaching out to her constituents.
The best way members of Congress and other elected officials around the nation can honor her is to continue to do the same.