The light in the darkness of the mass shooting in Tucson came from the courage and poise of ordinary citizens who disarmed Jared Loughner and — in the case of openly gay intern Daniel Hernandez — ran toward the gunfire and applied emergency care to save the life of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. They represent a seldom-mentioned alternative in the gun-rights debate, one that neither cowers in fear nor embraces the ”shoot ‘em up” ethos.
President Obama spoke eloquently on Jan. 12 of the need for “reflection and debate … worthy of those we have lost.” But while he rightly spoke against reflexively blaming one’s political opponents, the tone-it-down message risks a false equivalence between left and right. In fact, the vast majority of politicians employing violent rhetoric are Republican — Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Allen West, Newt Gingrich and Giffords’s 2010 opponent, Jesse Kelly, to name a few. It is not just their ballistic imagery but their portrayal of opponents as illegitimate, as domestic enemies, that requires accountability. Inflaming hate does not require actually setting a fire.
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has published an “Insurrectionism Timeline” on csgv.org that documents well over 100 incidents of insurrectionist violence and its promotion since the Supreme Court’s June 2008 decision in D.C. v. Heller, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, which said that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to bear arms and that a key purpose is to “assure the existence of a ‘citizens’ militia’ as a safeguard against tyranny.”
The CSGV timeline details a long litany of death threats against legislators, census workers and police; armed insurrection being peddled by Republican politicians and right-wing radio hosts; violence and threats by members of far-right groups like Oath Keepers and Guardians of the Free Republics; a jump in gun sales following a National Rifle Association campaign making the baseless claim that Obama planned a gun ban; and an unprecedented level of death threats against Obama.
James Adkisson fatally shot two worshippers in a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tenn., in July 2008. After being sentenced to life in prison, he issued a manifesto stating his purpose: “This was a symbolic killing. Who I wanted to kill was every Democrat in the Senate & House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldberg’s book [100 People Who Are Screwing Up America]. … But I know those people were inaccessible to me.” Adkisson had underestimated the church members, who quickly disarmed him.
The right wing’s warfare rhetoric trades on the home invasion fantasies of people much likelier to shoot loved ones than ATF agents. The fear and rage against a tyrannical government coming to get them exploded only after the free election of a Democratic president and Congress. Let’s face it, citizens in an arms race against their own government are bound to lose. But that is just a cover: Republicans are striving to make the country ungovernable except by them, in service of the wealthy few.
Democratic politicians surrendered on gun control years ago. Until they borrow some of their constituents’ bravery, the pathological proliferation of guns and ammunition, which create an enticing illusion of power, will not be curbed.
The fight to preserve our republic takes different forms in each generation. Our challenge now, beyond gun clips and psychological exams, is to resist the purveyors of political paranoia who would cripple government’s ability to defend the weak from the powerful.
The heroes of Tucson rose to their moment like the passengers of United Flight 93 on 9/11, when another gay man, Mark Bingham, was one of the defenders. We honor these Americans best by not allowing public policy to be determined by the threat of violence. Our country is reborn each moment, right where we are.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.