Editor’s note: This column originally was published Jan. 15, 2011, in the Daily Register.
“Lincoln was a fatalist. He thought, ‘If someone wants to kill me, nothing can stop them.’ After he was shot, over 100 death threats were found in a cubbyhole in his desk — he knew he was a target.” — author James Swanson, on National Public Radio, Feb. 12, 2009, the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.
It turns out Rep. Gabrielle Giffords also was a target, shot in the head by a crazed gunman just like our 16th president. But, miraculously, the Arizona Democrat is almost certain to survive.
Now, as commercials for one national nightly news show stated, we are left “looking for answers.”
Answers might make us all feel better, but we’re not going to like the most obvious one:
You can’t stop someone from killing another human being, especially if they don’t mind dying themselves.
What other answers do we want? Where do we want to place the blame? Obviously, it should be on 22-year-old Jared Loughner, the accused shooter.
Is he crazy? Of course. Who would do such a thing? But too many of us want to find a reason why he’s crazy that’s based on logical conclusions.
There’s too much political rhetoric, we say. He must have been influenced by it. He must be a right-wing wacko because he shot a Democrat.
That doesn’t seem to be the case. We’re using logical conclusions to explain illogical actions.
It’s been widely reported that Loughner showed erratic behavior. He had some misdemeanor arrests. He was kicked out of Pima Community College in Arizona. Does that make him a threat to kill someone?
He bought the gun he used legally. The clip he used, while illegal from 1994 to 2004, was quite legal when he bought it. The federal assault weapons ban was in place during those 10 years, putting the limit for rounds in a clip at 10. Loughner had 33 bullets in his clip and, according to reports, was trying to reload with another when he was wrestled to the ground.
“The only reason to have 33 bullets loaded in a handgun is to kill a lot of people very quickly,” U.S. Sen Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said in the wake of the shootings. I agree. But if he had had only 10 bullets, he still could have killed 10 people, including the congresswoman. While I would support such a limit on rounds in a clip — and Lautenberg plans on drafting such legislation — it wouldn’t prevent violent actions.
Realistically, there is no way to protect every member of Congress to a level even close to the protection afforded the president. It’s still quite rare for a member of Congress to be assassinated, despite the fact that most travel without much if any security outside the U.S. Capitol complex.
Rep. Leo J. Ryan, D-Calif., died from gunshot wounds in Guyana in 1978 while visiting the religious commune of the notorious Rev. Jim Jones. He was the last member of Congress assassinated while in office. Before that, it was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Before that, you have to go back to 1935 and Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana.
The last member of the U.S. House who was assassinated while in the United States? Rep. John Pinckney, a Texas Democrat, was shot to death at a mass meeting on April 24, 1905, by a lawyer opposed to Prohibition.
Access to politicians is essential to our political fabric. I think many elected officials would reject too many restrictions on access. Indeed, despite threats against Giffords, there she was last Saturday, in a throng of people, putting herself at risk.
When Sen. Russ Feingold came to visit us at the Daily Register several years ago, I was struck by his small entourage and his lack of security.
Let’s say we give all members of Congress more security. What about their families? What about their aides? What about governors and state senators? What about mayors and County Board members?
We’ve already seen what likely are copycat threats here in Wisconsin. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, and state Sens. Leah Vukmir and Alberta Darling each said they were targeted in a recent threat posted on Craigslist.
Will someone actually try to kill them? No, not likely. But the threat must be taken seriously.
I don’t believe that we should just sit back and do nothing. My point is that we can’t stop it all. Reduce ammunition clips to 10 rounds? Go for it. Add more security to elected officials? Sure, within reason. Have more stringent background checks so people such as Loughner can’t legally get a gun? Makes sense to me.
It won’t stop people from being killed.
Sure, there is too much political rhetoric right now. It’s preventing our government from functioning at its highest level. It’s nasty and self-defeating. But it’s not to blame for every ill that arises.
Despite the best efforts of all good Americans, more tragedies await us. We have to be secure in the fact we’ve done all we can to prevent them, mourn those who suffer when they happen and learn how to stop more of them from happening.
But we’ll never stop all of them.
Jason Maddux is editor of the Daily Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 745-3517.