On Saturday, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was holding her first post-election “Congress in your Corner” meet-and-greet outside a Safeway supermarket in Tucson, Ariz. Twenty-two-year-old Jared Loughner emerged from the store and approached the group. He fired one shot, point-blank, at Rep. Giffords. The bullet went through her brain. He then fired at others in the crowd. In a matter of seconds, Loughner killed six people and injured 13 more.
Loughner lives at home with his parents. His criminal record consists of only a few minor infractions. He was arrested for possessing drug paraphernalia, a case that later was dismissed. He was cited for running a stop sign, and in 2008 had a “local, noncriminal charge.” That year he also attempted to enlist in the Army but failed the drug test and was rejected.
His time at Pima Community College tells a different story. He had multiple runins with the campus police after causing disruptions in the classroom and the library. One of his classmates commented in an e-mail to her friend, “Hopefully he will be out of class very soon and not come back with an automatic weapon.” Ulti-mately, the college suspended him and said he couldn’t come back until he had a mental health evaluation and could prove he wasn’t a danger to himself and others. Rather than have the evaluation, Loughner withdrew from the college in October.
On Nov. 30, he walked into the Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson and legally purchased a Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun. Because Loughner had no criminal record and had never been committed against his will to a mental institution, he had no problem passing the instant background check. Because Arizona is one of three states that have no permitting requirements for carrying a concealed weapon, he could legally carry the gun into the Safeway parking lot that Saturday.
Loughner loaded the Glock with an extended, high-capacity magazine that is capable of holding up to 33 rounds of ammunition. Due to their added destructive capabilities, these high-capacity magazines had been banned under the Assault Weapons Ban. But Congress allowed the ban to expire in 2004.
The shooting lasted only about a minute, just long enough for him to empty one magazine and shoot 31 rounds. As he went to reload, a middle-aged woman grappled the ammunition away from him and two men wrestled him to the ground. Loughner had more high-capacity magazines with him. The bravery of these ordinary, unarmed people surely saved lives.
In the aftermath of the shooting, lawmakers are rethinking their security practices. But what they need to be doing is rethinking the easy access to guns that pervades this nation. Lawmakers have abdicated their responsibility to protect the people of this country.
The American public has the right to assemble peacefully, without fear. This right is taken from us when we allow a system where Loughner was found too crazy to attend college but not too crazy to buy a gun. And when we allow the sale of high-capacity magazines that can kill six people and wound 13 others in a matter of seconds.
U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree and Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins can do something right now to help restore our public safety. They can sign onto a bill being introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., that would reinstate the ban on the type of high-capacity magazine Loughner used.
A look at all the mass shootings this country has suffered in the past few years — Fort Hood, Binghamton, N.Y., Virginia Tech, — shows a common thread: All the shooters used high-capacity magazines.
Clearly, no one wants a system that allows mentally unstable individuals easy access to highly lethal and deadly firearms. But until the American public, and most specifically, responsible American gun owners, come forward and demand reform, Congress will continue to kowtow to the pressures of the gun lobby.
We can and we must stop this insanity. Inaction is not acceptable.
Cathie Whittenburg of Portland is the communications director for States United to Prevent Gun Violence.