Questions about mental illness, access to guns follow Arizona shooting

Sunday, January 9, 2011; 8:08 PM

THE SHOOTING in Arizona, which left six people dead and gravely injured Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is a horrifying tragedy. The temptation will be, as Arizona and the nation mourn the dead and hope for the recovery of the wounded, to infuse the terrible attack with broader political meaning - to blame the actions of the alleged 22-year-old gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, on a vitriolic political culture laced with violent metaphors and ugly attacks on opponents. Maybe. But metaphors don't kill people - guns kill people. Politicians should choose their words with care and keep debate civil, but it seems an unsupported leap to blame either the political climate or any particular individual or group for inciting the gunman. The suspect appears to be a disturbed young man with no coherent political philosophy.

Saturday's rampage does illustrate the need for tighter control of semiautomatic weapons and ammunition. The gunman arrived at the supermarket with a Glock semiautomatic equipped with an extended magazine of about 30 bullets and additional ammunition. The long-lapsed federal ban on assault weapons, which prohibited such high-capacity magazines, should be reinstated: There is no justification, outside of law enforcement or military use, for such ammunition. A magazine with a smaller capacity might not have stopped the gunman, but it might have at least reduced the carnage. President Obama once promised to push to reinstate the assault weapons ban but has backed down in the face of political opposition, and it is, sadly, hard to imagine that the shooting will usher in a new era of political openness to even reasonable gun control measures. It is a sad irony that last year Arizona joined Alaska and Vermont in permitting anyone over 21 to carry a concealed weapon without a background check.

The episode also underscores the importance of providing mental health services and finding some mechanism for keeping track of individuals who might be a danger to the community, consistent with civil liberties protections. Mr. Loughner's experience at Pima Community College is eerily reminiscent of that of Seung Hui Cho, who slaughtered 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. School administrators suspended Mr. Loughner because of his disturbing behavior and told his parents that he would have to obtain a mental health evaluation to return. That was a sensible course - but if Mr. Loughner's violent videos and other actions were so troubling, perhaps more was required than simply excluding him from the college. In an era of strained state budgets, mental health services are especially vulnerable to cuts. Mr. Loughner's alleged actions Saturday suggest how shortsighted that could be.

It would be sad if the shooting led lawmakers to cloister themselves even further from their constituents. Reasonable steps should be taken to protect members of Congress and other public officials, but being in public life means being in public. It would not be feasible, or desirable, to envelop each member of Congress in the kind of security bubble that surrounds the president.

Finally, for all the understandable focus on Ms. Giffords, it is important to remember the other victims, including U.S. District Judge John M. Roll; Ms. Gifford's director of community outreach, Gabe Zimmerman; and 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, born on a day of American tragedy, Sept. 11, 2001, and killed on another. As we hope for a full recovery for Ms. Giffords and the others injured in the shooting, let us thank the brave bystanders who tackled the alleged gunman before he could wreak even more harm.

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