Your browser is out of date. Some of the content on this site will not work properly as a result.
Upgrade your browser for a faster, better, and safer web experience.

Moment that mattered: Nineteen people are shot in Tucson, Arizona

Flowers and candles lie on the lawn of University Hospital Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011 in Tucson, Ariz. for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and others who were shot a day earlier during a Giffords speech at a local supermarket. (AP Photo/Matt York)

“I actually found out about the shooting via my wife. She called me and asked if I had heard that [Gabrielle] Giffords had been shot and what was going on at the Safeway shopping plaza. She had an appointment at a diet centre there at 10.30am and had arrived about 10.20am, about ten minutes after the shooting had stopped, but before the sheriff’s office had closed down the plaza. She said police had told her and the employees of the diet centre to stay inside and lock the doors, so I knew something serious was happening, but I doubted a US Congresswoman had been shot: I figured that was just hysterical rumour-mongering.

I checked online and found nothing on any of the news websites, then I checked my own site – TucsonCitizen.com, which used to be a daily newspaper in Tucson but in 2009 the news staff were laid off except for me and one other person who were tasked with administering a community blogging site. One of my bloggers had posted a single sentence with the headline “Giffords shot in the head”. He had written that he had received several text messages from friends of his at the ‘Congress on Your Corner’ event that Giffords and many other people had been shot, but that was all he knew. Then my site crashed.

I called my wife back and told her what I knew and asked her if she knew anything more. She said the police had been in the store several times “looking for another shooter” and that everyone was “freaked out” and scared.

I got dressed (I had only been up for about an hour and was still bumming around the house in shorts and a T-shirt) and went to work to try to get the site back up and post any new information.

I was working too hard that day to really feel anything – I’m a pretty hard-bitten newsman who is mostly devoid of empathy. I was concerned about my wife: she was pretty upset about being so close to the carnage. Swat members kept coming through the store and Swat searched her car twice before they let her finally leave after about two and a half hours.

As time has passed I personally haven’t felt any different since it didn’t directly affect me. However, several people who were former colleagues of mine and one of my bloggers were at the shooting and barely escaped being counted among the dead and wounded. Talking with them about the shooting in the days after was gut-wrenching. Most conversations started out with the usual pleasantries, but my annoying curiosity always gets the better of me and I found myself asking them detailed questions about the shooting, which more often than not ended with my friend or colleague getting choked up or with tears in their eyes. I felt awful, but often couldn’t help myself. And some of them started out wanting to tell me what happened and didn’t expect to become so emotional while telling me.”

“The only way to get guns out of the hands of Americans is to repeal the Second Amendment and that is unlikely ever to happen”

What people can learn from the event is that America has more of a mental illness problem than it does a gun problem. We have inadequate diagnosis and treatment for the mentally ill and inadequate resources for parents and caregivers to provide monitoring and support of mentally ill family members or dependents. This isn’t the first shooting rampage by a seriously mentally ill person in Tucson: a police officer was killed three years ago by a man who drove across town firing wildly at police during a police chase, and about a decade ago a man killed his three nursing-school instructors at the University of Arizona.

Unfortunately, the day of the shooting our county sheriff jumped to conclusions and attributed the motive of the shooting to a climate of hate created by American conservative talk radio and cable TV. That immediately blew up into a debate about civility in politics, which had nothing to do with the shooting. From there the debate morphed into one about guns and the issue of untreated mental illness got brushed aside or given short shrift. It wasn’t talk radio or guns that made somebody shoot those people that day, it was the demons in their head.

Guns will always be a vexing issue in America because of the Second Amendment and because it’s a part of our culture and heritage. Almost as many homes in America have guns in them as don’t. The only way to get guns out of the hands of Americans is to repeal the Second Amendment and that is unlikely ever to happen. And the debate over political rhetoric was silly and distracting. It became the primary topic of debate because it was the easiest to argue about. Dealing with guns and mental illness are complex constitutional problems (the mentally ill are protected by constitutional civil liberties – you can’t force treatment on adults without going through an enormous amount of due process) and harder to boil down to a three-minute shoutfest on TV or radio.

The response in Tucson was exceptional. Memorials sprang up at the shooting site, the hospital where Giffords and other victims were being treated and at Giffords’s congressional office here. Tens of thousands of cards, letters, mementos, signs, balloons, stuffed animals and the like were deposited at each site, all of which have been collected and will be part of a memorial that an ad hoc committee is planning. Tens of thousands of dollars were donated to support the families of the dead and to help pay for the medical costs of the wounded. The outpouring of concern and grief was a like a giant cloth that helped to wipe away the black stain of the shooting and helped relieve the horror and desolation that was wrought on this community.

Now that we’re about three months away from the shooting, the city has mostly returned to normal. The makeshift memorials have been packed away, the wounded have all been treated and are convalescing or back at work and the dead have been buried. The Safeway plaza is bustling once again and Giffords, the focus of most of the grief and emotion, is away in Houston at a rehabilitation centre. There was a “civility” concert here a couple of weeks ago but only a few thousand people attended.

The worst response, though, has been a slow burn. Conservatives have slowly and at first quietly but now a little more vociferously called for Giffords to resign her office, saying they’re without representation in Congress. They’re doing it more out of more political opportunism than concern for their lack of representation. Under Arizona law, a new election would have to be held and there’s a good chance a Republican would be elected. I think the decent thing to do is give Giffords six or nine months to recover and then decide if she thinks she’ll be able to return to Congress.

About 20,000 people attended the memorial where Obama spoke. I expected a solemn occasion and thought it a little disconcerting that there was so much cheering and carrying on during parts of his speech. But I get it now. It was a memorial in name, but in actuality it was a celebration of the community’s response to the crisis, honouring the people who saved lives, from the good Samaritan bystanders, who treated the wounded and wrestled the shooter, to the surgeons who treated Giffords and others.

Some people were looking for a more sedate, solemn and religious occasion and were offended by the “rally” atmosphere. I think that’s an overreaction. While I thought it weird at first, I was kind of happy that we responded that way. We weren’t going to be terrorised. We’re better and stronger than that. As for Sarah Palin, she’s a narcissist who tried to make it about her instead of about the people who were killed and wounded. I don’t give her much thought. The expiration light is blinking on her 15 minutes anyway.

I personally hadn’t seen the world’s media descend on a story before and I was shocked at how quickly the city filled up. Within days, every angle and facet of [suspected shooter] Jared Lee Loughner’s life was dug up and exposed, as well as his family’s. Not only was my wife at the shopping plaza just after the shooting, but we live just around the corner from the Loughners. The media was all over our neighbourhood. My 16-year-old daughter was walking home from school the week after the shooting and she was stopped by reporters from the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee who wanted to know if she knew Jared Loughner or the family. She said no, she just used to walk our dog down the Loughner’s street and Jared used to sit out on the driveway lifting weights and sometimes talked to himself and never answered her when she said hello, so she would cross the street to walk the dog so she didn’t have to pass him whenever he was out. And that quote showed up in the LA Times, which I thought was ridiculous: it had next-to-zero news value but when you’re stringing for a big paper and they want a story and no one is talking, you’ll talk to whoever will talk to you and call it news.

The only hole left in the story is the Loughners’ home life, but that’s not for want of trying. Until the family chooses to talk or is forced to at the trial, we’ll never really know what the family knew about Jared’s mental illness and what steps they took, if any, to have it treated.

We should learn how to properly treat the mentally ill. And we should learn how to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, though that’s much easier said than done. Will we learn those things? No. This is just the latest in a long line of American massacres. We didn’t learn anything from those killings and we won’t learn anything from this one. More’s the pity.


Mark Evans is the editor of TucsonCitizen.com, a community blogging site that gives voice to people in the city.

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
Creative Review

Jam-packed with information... a counterpoint to the speedy news feeds we've grown accustomed to”
Creative Review

A leisurely (and contrary) look backwards over the previous three months”
The Telegraph

Quality, intelligence and inspiration: the trilogy that drives the makers of Delayed Gratification”
El Mundo

Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
The Telegraph

A very cool magazine... It's like if Greenland Sharks made a newspaper”
Qi podcast

The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
Editor, Private Eye
Private Eye Magazine

Perhaps we could all get used to this Delayed idea...”
BBC Radio 4 - Today Programme