What will change as a result of Tucson tragedy? Experience suggests, not much

Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in the head Saturday morning while hosting an event outside a grocery store. Six people died, and 14 were injured.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 5:23 PM

Again and again, this country has asked itself: How can this happen?

We investigate. We ultimately get answers. And they almost always present themselves as a variation on a familiar recipe of poisons: mental illness that has gone untreated, a culture that has encouraged the basest forces of our natures, guns that have fallen too easily into the wrong hands, signals that were missed, laws and systems that have failed.

That a congresswoman could have been shot, and others murdered, simply because she was doing the work she had sworn to do has opened up a national debate over how we conduct our national debates.

Could decency have prevented this? We still don't know much about what allegedly drove 22-year-old Jared Loughner to fire a bullet into the head of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and to shoot those around her, but it seems that his politics were not a big part of it.

Yet once the investigations are done and the grief and fear lose their edge, experience suggests that not all that much will really change. Learning an answer is not the same as learning a lesson.

While tragedy occasionally presents a political opportunity to one side or the other, that edge is rarely as sharp - or as enduring - as the deep philosophical and ideological divisions of a polarized nation.

In the wake of the shootings in Tucson, gun laws probably will probably remain pretty much as they are now. Mental health treatment will remain underfunded in cash-strapped states, the system for identifying potentially dangerous people will remain porous. If the vitriol does recede for a while, it will return.

And the next time, when something unthinkable happens, a shocked country will once again tell itself that everything has changed, until it turns out that it hasn't.

For a while in the late 1990s, it seemed that every few months brought news of another horrific shooting in a school. They were all the more shocking because they happened in so many I-never-thought-it-could-happen-here places - West Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Littleton, Colo.

At one point then, as President Bill Clinton was preparing to meet with yet another group of grieving loved ones, he turned to Bruce Reed, his top domestic policy adviser.

"I can't go in there and tell them it's going to be different," Reed recalls his boss saying that day, "because I've been through this too many times."

There have been moments, of course, when tragedy has rewritten history's story line.

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