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A Scramble To Control Narrative Of Tucson Massacre

Gun rights advocates and right-wing radio talkers have accused their critics of exploiting the massacre in Tucson, Ariz., for political gain.

Firearms control activists have responded to the Saturday shooting by decrying the right's increasingly mainstream theme of "Second Amendment" solutions to "government tyranny" and Sarah Palin's online 2010 campaign map, which featured gun-sight cross hairs over targeted districts.

Mental health experts, cautioning against stigmatizing those with treatable disorders, have used the tragedy to highlight failings in the nation's mental health system.

And everyone, it seems, has been wringing his hands over that pesky First Amendment and its protections for even the ugliest, most incendiary barkers among us.

Control of what Douglas Kellner calls the post-tragedy "spectacle" has definitely been up for grabs.

"The spectacle is always contested terrain," says Kellner, author of Guys and Guns Amok: Domestic Terrorism and School Shootings from the Oklahoma City Bombing to the Virginia Tech Massacre.

"Every time there is one of these acts of domestic terrorism, or school shootings, everyone brings out their theory," says Kellner, a professor and media and violence expert at the University of Southern California.

"Everyone tries to determine one cause," he says of the practiced and predictable rush to claim the fleeting message terrain. "But there are many."

I believe that the sociological situation of these shooters has to be part of the explanation -- the political culture, the gun culture.

A Debate Worth Having

Perhaps no one will ever know all of the internal and external conditions that led 22-year-old Jared Loughner to allegedly gun down Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday and kill a federal judge, a 9-year-old girl and four others. Giffords, whose 2010 race was "targeted" online by Palin, remains in critical condition.

But surely the motivations of the alleged shooter and the environment in which they were incubated deserve a compulsory conversation, no matter where your politics lie, say Kellner and others, including sociology professor Stuart Wright of Lamar University in Texas, who have long tracked guns, violence and alienated young American men.

"These are fair conversations to have -- particularly about the nation's political atmosphere," says Wright, author of Patriots, Politics, and the Oklahoma City Bombing, adding: "However, I remain an observer to see if this goes any further than just gestures for public consumption."

A troubled young man with easy, legal access to a semi-automatic gun and ammunition. Who spouted fringe theories online and who lived in a state where some of the most extreme politics of the past year have played out. And allegedly plotted a congresswoman's assassination.

What's not to talk about?

The Gun Argument

It says something about the flagging influence of the gun control lobby that the most forceful response by gun control advocates to the shooting has been a proposal to reduce the legally allowable size of a gun's magazine -- the device that stores and feeds ammunition into a firearm.

The suspect on Saturday allegedly used a 31-round magazine with his semi-automatic Glock -- the same model used by the disaffected Virginia Tech student who in 2007 shot dead 32 people on campus before killing himself. That size of magazine was illegal for a decade until 2004, when Congress allowed the Clinton-era federal ban on assault weapons to expire.

New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat whose husband was killed and son wounded in 1993 by a gunman on a Long Island Rail Road train, has said she plans to advance legislation that would limit the sale of "high capacity" magazines.

Even that has been already been branded "radical" by some incoming House Republicans.

Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, says  he sees McCarthy's proposal as the beginning of a "serious push for new gun laws." But he acknowledges that the 2008 Supreme Court decision affirming the constitutional right to keep and bear arms has complicated the control effort.

Horwitz is among gun control advocates who say they have been alarmed at the shift in gun rights rhetoric -- from arguments for the right to possess guns for hunting and self-defense to arguments that frame the right as intrinsic to holding a tyrannical government accountable.

That sentiment was off the grid, he says, in 1995 when Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a militia sympathizer with strong anti-government motivations, bombed a federal building. "The idea back then that you could take up arms against the federal government was a fringy thing," he says. "Now it is more of the core of who we are as Americans."

Not that Palin or others who use gun imagery in their discourse are actually encouraging a taking up of arms, Horwitz says. "But when you motivate the base, you also motivate the weak of mind."

Palin, for her part, has not spoken out in person about her campaign target map but has removed it from her website. She did respond directly to critics Wednesday, posting a lengthy statement on her Facebook page and a corresponding video in which she says: "Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn."

The NRA has refrained from commenting since the shooting, saying in a statement that only prayers "for the victims and their families" are appropriate at this time.

The Mental Health Conversation

So, does the alleged shooter Loughner represent a turning point for discussions about the mentally ill and gun access?

In the wake of the shooting, Michael Fitzpatrick of the National Alliance on Mental Illness has been among those cautioning about stigmatizing the mentally ill and calling for better early intervention initiatives to help the troubled.

"This is a very challenging topic," he said. "In the Arizona situation, details are still emerging, but as far as we know, this individual was unknown to the mental health system."

Loughner, it appears, may never have "touched" the mental health system, in a state that makes it easier than others to have a person evaluated for mental health.

"When these horrific incidents happen, you hark back to how the individual got the gun," Fitzpatrick said, noting that obtaining a firearm is easy -- Loughner allegedly purchased his at a local sporting goods store.

His larger message: Treat mental illness like any other illness.

If Loughner had experienced chest pains in his community college classroom rather than exhibiting erratic behavior, "he would have gotten medical attention," Fitzpatrick says. Instead, "he was just sent out for a note from a psychiatrist."

The bad news? States under financial stress, including Arizona, have been systematically cutting back on mental health services. The good news, according to many mental health advocates: The health insurance overhaul will allow young adults to stay on their parents' private insurance plans until they are 26, and coverage may improve for those needing mental health and addiction treatment.

There's No One Easy Explanation

Kellner argues that although the alleged Tucson gunman apparently acted alone, that doesn't mean his actions weren't influenced along the way by the environment in which he lived.

"I believe that the sociological situation of these shooters has to be part of the explanation -- the political culture, the gun culture," said Kellner, whose book delved into what he calls the "crisis of masculinity" that troubled young men resolve through violent acts that result in media spectacles.

There is, he says, a "multicausal" explanation for Saturday's shooting. Mental illness. Media violence. Gun culture. Political culture. And a young man's crisis.

"I see a lot of discourse and symbolism promoting gun violence as a political weapon -- a fight-the-government attitude," he says, that intensified when President Obama took office and the National Rifle Association warned that Obama would fail to protect gun rights. "That's what makes this so complex."

And that's why the airwaves and newspapers and advocates and politicos will continue the conversation. As well they should.

"It is certainly fair to have a conversation about political discourse," Horwitz says. "Not to stop it, but just have a damn conversation about it."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.