See Slate’s complete coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and arrest of Jared Lee Loughner.
Arizona’s Legislature began its new session Monday, guns in tow. At a rally outside of the state Capitol, a 73-year-old Tea Party activist named Arthur Olivas Jr. was photographed wearing a holstered pistol. Anyone who blamed the Tea Party for the slaughter outside a Tucson Safeway, he said, didn’t understand the movement and didn’t understand gun rights.
“If you see 20 guns out there,” Olivas told Politico, “you would not be stupid enough to hold up a bank or shoot anyone because you would have guns pointed at you.”
Olivas had company inside the Capitol. The 2010 election saw Arizona Republicans build on the gains they made in 2008, winning a two-thirds majority in the House and holding a 21-9 seat margin in the Senate. In their last session, those Republicans had passed gun-rights laws that had been vetoed for years until President Obama plucked Janet Napolitano out of the governor’s mansion; she was replaced by Republican Jan Brewer. This year’s session promised to be even better: Incoming Senate Majority Leader Russell Pearce has called himself the “Tea Party Senate president-elect.”
The Tea Party Senate is off to a solid start. On day one, Sen. Jack Harper was moving H.B. 2001, legislation that would allow community college faculty members to carry concealed weapons on campus.
It makes sense. Pima Community College Professor Benjamin McGahee had been telling reporters that he’d “always turn back quickly” from the whiteboard when he taught alleged Tucson shooter Jared Lee Loughner, fretting over whether his student had a gun. And while he hasn’t introduced it yet, Harper has talked about filing legislation to let students carry concealed weapons, too, and has talked up his chances of success. “A couple of ‘country club Republicans’ who were opposed,” he said in December, “will not return.” It’s a bold new Senate.
Harper wasn’t available to talk today, although he did get into a tete-a-tete with Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik over who deserved the blame for the Tucson rampage. Staff with Pima Community College Campus Police’s would only say that they, like the campus police of Arizona’s state universities, opposed H.B. 2001.
That might not matter. In Washington, for the first time in years, reporters are paying attention to a gun-control campaign. This week, two Democrats will introduce legislation that would ban high-capacity magazines, like the kind allegedly used in Tucson by Loughner. But Democrats haven’t passed gun-control legislation at the federal level since 1993, and even a sponsor of the bill, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, is cautious about its chances.
“We’re in virgin territory here in regard to a member of Congress being gunned down,” said Chad Ramsey, the federal legislation director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, where he’s worked for 10 lean years. “You react differently when you know somebody who’s been shot. I’m not sure how people are going to react.”
That’s just the sort of talk that sets off Arizona gun-rights groups. “Usually the anti-freedom bigots have got something on the shelf just waiting for some blood to dance in,” said Chad Heller, a co-founder of the Arizona Citizens Defense League, when asked about the federal legislation.
In Arizona, gun-rights groups don’t have to worry about the “anti-freedom bigots” at all. Harper and Pearce are right; they began this year with the votes to expand gun rights, picking up right where they left off last year. They passed a “Constitutional Carry Act” that expanded the right to carry weapons in public—the right Arthur Olivas was enjoying today—and limited what local authorities can do to regulate firearms. They made Arizona the sixth state to pass a “Firearms Freedom Act,” exempting any firearms made and used in the state from federal regulations.
The point of all this is that there’s very little gun-control activists can do in Arizona in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting. They can point out that Loughner had shown signs of mental problems before he was sold a Glock 19 at the Tucson Sportsman’s Warehouse, or bullets at a local Wal-Mart. But the state prohibits any coordination of mental health records with the National Instant Criminal Background Check system.
So Arizona’s response—the most likely legislative response—is going to be expanded gun rights. Heller told me on Monday that the Arizona Citizens Defense League has drafted legislation that would allow the state to train members of Congress and their staffs in firearms, and give them access to firearms they could carry in their districts.
“I don’t think having a firearm on her would have done Congresswoman Giffords any good,” Heller admitted. “However, if it was known that members of her staff were well armed, that very well could have dissuaded [the shooter].”
I couldn’t find a legislator on Monday who was interesting in bringing this up, and Heller’s group is still working out the details of its proposal. But these ideas are going to have traction. Over the weekend, Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Heath Shuler said that they intended to keep sidearms with them when they traveled their districts.
They were going only a little farther than Giffords herself has gone, talking about her own firearm and her belief in the Second Amendment. In 2009, an activist brought an AR-15 to a protest outside of a presidential appearance in Phoenix. It was legal, and Giffords did not condemn it. Her spokeswoman said at the time that Giffords would “balance rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment and providing her constituents with a safe forum to share their views.”
It’s been 43 years since a member of Congress was assassinated on American soil. The death of Robert F. Kennedy led to the passage of a sweeping Gun Control Act. The Tucson shooting is likely to lead to Arizona’s loose gun-control laws getting even looser—looser than they were when they applied to Wyatt Earp.