Sunday, January 09, 2011

LETTER FROM ARIZONA: there are so many guns out there...

To light a candle as part of the vigil honoring and supporting Rep. Gabby Giffords and the other victims of the Tucson tragedy, go to You can read about the vigil here on an earlier post in MyStoryLives.

By Dan Beauchamp

Well, it was another one of those television days, days when the news came in chaotically and was constantly changing, but this was about someone that my wife and I knew, our member of Congress. The first reports were that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot and was dead, and for a while that was what we assumed. And then we heard that she wasn’t. And then one of the local announcers at the University Medical School said she had been told that she was dead. And then it was reported that she was “talking” as she was being taken into surgery. And so we waited.

As I watched television I reminded myself that even in a city as big as Tucson (500,000, maybe less), news people are local and they simply never face something like this. Still, there was considerable chaos in reporting the incident. I suspect when the FBI came in they put the fear of God in everyone and told them to button up. You never know if the early reports are correct, but apparently a physician was in the crowd, a former emergency room doc. The doctor was later interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN.

The physician saw Giffords get shot at point blank range and the physician jumped behind one of the big pillars in front of the Safeway and laid down, playing dead. And then a Giffords staffer tackled the gunman. And the doctor got up and went to help people who were still alive. And the doctor said that what shocked him was that it took 20 minutes or more for the emergency people to get there. The cops were much faster. But later he said he wasn’t sure because time sort of stops for everyone. It took forever for any solid news to get reported.

This intersection is one we visit every time we are in Tucson; our favorite restaurant, the Wildflower is half a block away and Whole Foods where we also shop is directly across the street, on Oracle, a main road in Norwest Tucson going to neighboring Oro Valley. There’s tons of traffic there. It's not that far from a big hospital, and the University hospital is about three miles away. Unfortunately, the area is in Pima County between Tucson and Oro Valley and that might be why there was confusion, if there was confusion.

I should shut up about this, we are 90 miles away in Bisbee but she was a very visible member of Congress and much liked and well known in the small towns of her district, towns like Bisbee and Douglas, and she succeeded a moderate Republican, Jim Kobe, whom we also liked and who was smeared as he left office because he was gay. Her first opponent, Randy Graf, a state representative and influential Republican, and a passionate advocate for promoting gun rights, was the brother of the wife of a former assistant city manager in Bisbee, and expanding “gun rights” was his one big thing in the state legislatures. But Giffords also supports gun rights, whatever that means in practice.

One of Giffords' colleagues in Congress, a conservative Republican in the Arizona delegation to Congress, was interviewed and had very kind words for Gabby but he also said that he has a gun and that many on his staff had concealed guns and carry permits for guns. And another man interviewed later in the day said he was wearing a gun and was in the laundry down from the Safeway, and he went out and saw the man being tackled by people and that if the man had managed to escape he would have shot him.

My wife and I tend to forget that at one of the first parties we went to here in Bisbee, almost 15 years ago, a woman came wearing a pistol and she told us she was in a “Witness Protection program.” Right. We figured she was a little off yet In bizarre Bisbee that's still considered very bizarre. And yet another man in Bisbee, well-known and now dead, rumored to be a former spook, went about with a gun occasionally.

It's not the wild west here in Bisbee; it’s the mining town West and wearing guns seems strange to us, and so we listen to the news as the state legislature keeps legalizing yet another place where it’s okay to wear a gun or to carry a concealed weapon. Most people I know think it's nuts and that people who carry guns are the people who tend to get shot, by accident or not. As the news kept rolling in it seemed like the perpetrator was a little strange, a little cracked in his notes to You Tube and you wonder how he got the Glock semi-automatic weapon but as I recall, you don’t have to have a permit to buy a gun in this state.

For a moment I thought the killing was related to the slain judge, a veteran of the bench in Tucson, a George Herbert Bush appointee who was well-respected, and who had ruled in favor of a civil rights law suit filed on behalf of illegal aliens against a rancher; he had gotten very specific death threats and the marshals guarded him for a month or more, and they told him it was probably unwise to press charges against the four men who were identified making the threats.

A week or so after the election we met Gabby Giffords at a small reception held in a local coffee shop. My wife Carole had worked the phone banks for her in the closing week, and the Giffords' staff person who organized the calling sent us an email to ask us to be there. She is just as beautiful as her pictures, rather slight and very articulate and personable, and very much on top of things. Carole worked for years for a member of Congress in DC and handled the man's re-election campaigns and she said the Giffords' operation was very well run. I talked to the Giffords staff member after the race about the charged atmosphere in many of the border Congressional districts. Giffords said in her brief talk that the turnout in our Congressional district was reportedly one of the highest in the nation. Giffords only won because she took the threat seriously and organized a massive grass roots effort to get the Dems out. Politics is a big deal down here.

We have friends in Prescott who are really tired of all the rancor in the state, and who are thinking of moving back to North Carolina. But we will stick it out. Tucson is one of our favorite towns. I will be teaching at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health starting in 10 days, located next door to where Giffords is hospitalized. I’m sure the first day in class we won’t be talking about the politics and policy for rural health, our course focus. We will be talking about guns and politics, and about the futility of doing much about it.

As we went to bed Gabby Giffords is reported to be doing well and responding to the medical staff and her family is there.

We have lived here in southern Arizona since 1996, with a three-year break when we returned to North Carolina. And as we went to bed I said to Carole, “Just think about all the times during our over 40 years of marriage we have turned on the television because someone in the United States has shot a politician.” And with all of those guns out there, floating around everywhere, it probably won’t be the last time.

After retiring from teaching health policy at the University of North Carolina and SUNY Albany, writer Dan Beachamp moved with his wife Carole to Bisbee, Arizona, and later became Mayor. He keeps a fabulous blog at Tales of Copper City. This piece appeared originally on the Huffington Post.

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