Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Another view on the Arizona Murders

I received the following from Jeanne Bishop, who will be my co-presenter (and possible arch-nemesis) on Thursday at the NCADP National Conference. (Jeanne's profile is on p. 19 here; mine is on p. 22). Her words are more credible than mine can be. My own thoughts are at the Huffington Post, here.

Your Sunday reflection on the power of words to inspire action resonated deeply with me.

I share a bond with the families of the six victims slain in Arizona this past weekend: three of my family members lost their lives when a disturbed young man shot them to death.

He had broken into his lawyer's office to look for a card that would have allowed him to buy guns and ammunition in our state. While he was looking for the card, he opened an unlocked desk drawer and found something better: a .357 Magnum handgun, speed loaders and bullets. He took the gun and ammunition and left. Two days later, he used that gun to kill my family members.

He broke into their home and shot my brother-in-law execution style, once, in the back of the head. He fired twice into my sister's pregnant belly, striking her in the abdomen and side, and left her to die.

When you lose loved ones to murder, you want to identify and hold accountable every single person or thing that contributed to cause their death. I blame the young man who killed my sister and her husband and their baby. But I also blame the gun manufacturer which could have used "smart gun" fingerprint recognition technology or a simple, inexpensive trigger lock feature to prevent the killer from firing the gun. I blame lax safe storage laws which allowed a loaded gun to be kept in an unlocked drawer. I blame the killer's parents for not supervising him more closely or getting him help when they knew how dangerous he was.

It's hard for me to read the comments on the reflection that blame only "the occasional nutjob", that describe the accused gunman as a "crazy person" whose "insanity isn't based on political ideology" (even though his primary target was an elected official with whom he disagreed).

The facts are these (and now I quote from a statement from Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence):

Arizona, as it turns out, has almost no gun laws, and scored just two points out of 100 last year on the Brady State Scorecard. Since then, things have gotten worse. Arizona is one of only three states that allow residents to carry loaded, hidden guns without background checks. Arizona recently weakened its gun laws to take guns into bars. In addition, if Congress had not allowed the Assault Weapons Ban to expire in 2004, the shooter would have only been able to get off 10 rounds without reloading. Instead, he was able to fire at least 20 rounds from his 30-round clip.

Add to that the inflammatory political rhetoric decried by Pima County (AZ) Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a 75-year-old with more than 50 years of law enforcement experience, and you have the combustible mix that all helped contribute to the deaths of six innocents and the wounding of many more.

People can say it's just about one disturbed person. But in the opinion of this murder victims' family member, that is easy, simplistic and dead wrong.

Sorry for your loss Ms. Bishop. As a prosecutor of murders I think I have a good grasp of the damage even one can do, though I know, thank God, I won't be able to ever truly understand and comprehend your loss.

However, while I share some of the concerns about the lack of background checks etc that you mention. My point has and continues to be this:

There is no evidence, yet, that stricter gun laws would have prevented this tragedy, nor that he was inspired by any rhetoric. It is wrong to assume so and use it as a reason for the things you seek.

The sheriff should focus on the facts and not inject a political slant against the right where there is no evidence to even hint it played a role. And while stricter gun laws might have made things more difficult for the shooter, there is no reason to suspect he would not have passed a background check or been able to obtain more guns bullets etc.

You state with certainty what the shooter would or would not have been able to do had things been a different way. And that is, as you say, easy, simplistic, and dead wrong. We know what he did and we should figure out the real reasons he did before moving forward with things like the laws you seek.
Rather than focusing on abridging the rights of the general public maybe we could spend more time identifying people like the shooter. It seems to me, that given the facts that have recently come to light, the failings were not with the gun control laws or the rhetoric from the right, but rather the inability of the people around this mad man to see that something was terribly wrong. If we can be conditioned to look out for terrorist activity around us, why can't we learn to get help identify people like this guy?
I'm a pretty much pro gun-control guy, and I've got to agree with DDA (I'm going to miss calling you DADA) on this one (it may be the prosecutor in me). I just don't think the evidence is there that stricter laws would have kept guns out of this kid's hands.

Still, I do agree on one point: saying he is crazy absolves him of some moral responsibility. No way. The guy was unbalanced, mentally disturbed, and held a delusional view of the world influenced by a variety of sources, but he still made a very wrong, very terrible moral choice, and we need to not lose that in the ensuing political fracas.
Ms. Bishop ~ thank you for your words.
"'insanity isn't based on political ideology' (even though his primary target was an elected official with whom he disagreed)."

And this is the problem. What evidence is there that he disagreed with the congresswoman? The evidence as to this guy's political beliefs is sketchy (at best) to nonexistent. Basically, the argument from Ms. Bishop and the Arizona Sheriff seems to be that this guy shot a congresswoman, that congresswoman was a Democrat, ergo this guy must've been a rightwing reactionary. That is the kind of false syllogism that every college freshman learns to immediately recognize and dismiss in logic 101.

I actually tend to agree with Ms. Bishop about the gun control issues, but that is because I'm afraid of guns and don't find the arguments of the NRA particularly persuasive in regards to automatic weapons.

There are two problems here. One, by blaming some external force for pushing this guy to do it we are focusing as a nation on the wrong thing. We are focused on what politicians in Washington D.C. said about each other instead of focusing on real solutions to these types of problems, which may include gun control, but even more likely include education and information to educational institutions, teachers, and students about how to spot troubled people and how to get them help. If there is one thing I'm certain of it was that many people identified this young man as troubled before these murders happened and the overwhelming reaction at an institutional and individual level was to do nothing.

Second, there are now lawmakers talking about legislating incendiary speech and regulating the air waves to limit divisive rhetoric. The reaction to the moment can't be less speech. It should be more. Seeking to limit expression is never the appropriate step for the greatest open society in the history of the world. Should Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Ed Schultz all calm down and say less ridiculous things. Sure, if only because it would make them somewhat tolerable. Should we encourage all of them to do so by not watching the endless 24 hour cable news programming that encourages such insanity? Yes, and I already do this by not watching any of these people, ever. But should we use this as an opportunity to start legislating what speech is or isn't too incendiary politically for the American public to be exposed to? Absolutely not. This is not a time for government to start legislating ideas and thoughts and speech, for it is ideas, thoughts, and speech

Ms. Bishop, I, like everyone else, am sorry for your loss.
Thank you, Ms. Bishop, for a powerful opinion. My heart goes out to you for your loss.

I have watched the aftermath of the Arizona tragedy in stunned silence. I have had, continue to have, many thoughts and reactions--but no coherent essay as of yet.

A few of my questions:

Words matter. Enough said. But evidence matters also. What are the connections between "provocative speech" in this case and the actions of the deranged gunman?

How extensive would the gun laws have to be to preempt the tragedy in Tucson? How intrusive would the state need to be to protect us from a similarly deranged killer?

We can all agree that the state/police cannot protect us from deranged criminals. Based on that indisputable fact, how far should individuals be allowed to go to protect themselves. It seems to me that reasonable people disagree. On one side, it is true that a rational and coordinated individual might be safer in a dangerous world armed. On the other hand, I can certainly see the argument that a proliferation of armed individuals makes us less safe as a community. What to do with this tension between enhanced personal security and a more chaotic society?
I definitely agree with DDA. The tragic events in Tucson and in Ms. Bishops are horrible, but there is no nexus to rhetoric. If there were any facts suggesting a connection it would be plastered all over the news and this blog. Instead all these allegations are based on the biases of countless pundits. This is merely an attempt by certain interest groups to sway public opinion and it is shameful.

Searching the archives of this blog reveal that nary a post was presented discussing the last mass murder- Ft. Hood.

Your research skills aren't so good. If you want to find commentary on Ft. Hood, try looking in the archives around the time of that event (Nov. 5, 2009). If you tried that, you would find...

This Sunday Reflection about Fort Hood.

And this.

As for knowing his motivations, I suspect that will come out. We do know that he passionately hated government and that he killed his Congresswoman. That's an ideology and an action. It's not folly to connect the two.
For those who believe more gun control laws would end, or very nearly eliminate, this kind of senseless violence, what would your reaction be if a legally armed citizen had shot and killed the murderer immediately following his shooting the congresswoman?

One more question, is it possible to use regulation of speech and guns to completely eradicate these kinds of deplorable events?

No one here has advocated the regulation of speech-- just individual restraint. It's very different than saying I want government control (I don't) to say that I hope people will try to avoid divisive language (I do).

"Completely eradicate?" If that is the standard, there is no reason to have any laws. The best we can ever do through any law enforcement measure is reduce the amount of crime, hardship, and hurt.
At this stage it is pure speculation and wishful thinking to assume that his idealogy is driven by current political rhetoric. From the facts I have read it is the complete opposite. This guy is delusional, unstable and incoherent. After he shot Rep Giffords he indiscriminately shot anyone and everyone he could and intended to harm many more.

For lack of a better term Loughner is a crazy loon. Nothing has surfaced to suggest any motivations. To stir the pot by implicitly inferring he was motivated by vitriolic rhetoric when no facts exist to support your theory speaks for itself.
This post was about guns.
For Anon 11:33:

The original post was also about "the inflammatory political rhetoric decried by Pima County (AZ) Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a 75-year-old with more than 50 years of law enforcement experience, and you have the combustible mix that all helped contribute to the deaths of six innocents and the wounding of many more."
Even the AZ republic is now tired of Dupnik's "incendiary" rhetoric: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/opinions/articles/2011/01/11/20110111tue1-11.html

And from what I've read, this kid seems more like the Columbine killers with his obsession with the Matrix and Batman movies. It also sounds similar to the VTech situation also sounds similar. Maybe, like others suggest, the higher priority is that we need to take a harder look at how we are raising kids these days.

Other Kendall
Lane: It may be the prosecutor still in me, but I've always felt that saying someone was crazy in no way absolved them of moral responsibility. So I'm glad you also see the terrible moral choices he made that require his punishment. The laws are moral to begin with and must be upheld even if the crazy person, may not, for a moment rationally understand them.

Osler: You are right to see a nexus between his hatred for government and his actions of killing his congresswoman, but I guess the question in these types of situations is: what caused him to follow through with his actions? What was the catalyst? And I suspect we won't know until he says it himself.

I agree with your original post that words have meaning (with the exception of when making fun of Lane). But hasn't it suprised you how quickly the rhetoric on the right got the blame? or the politicking by the sherrif?
Like RRL I think all of this won't help resolve those issues and the energy expended on "vitriol" could have been better applied to real substantive conversations and plans. Now I fear it's lost in a battle between the rhetoric on the left and right about this incident!
Upon close examination it would be difficult, and certainly so at a distance, to determine any causal linkage between amped-up political rhetoric and the motive behind the shooting. The sheriff may have gone way beyond the data and his role. Nevertheless, I was glad to see him speak up in the way he did. As a psychologist (and as others have speculated in the national media) it would appear the actions of the young man were as much determined by the delusions of paranoid schizophrenia (he is right in the midst of the time frame of typical onset) as any other possibility. I am also aware of the research exploring the influence of violent media on behavior and in many ways it tends to be rather equivocal. At the same time I am aware of the power behavioral/social modeling to shape and influence behavior of others. Small group research suggests that social modeling is often one of the most robust aspects of small groups in shaping behavior. That does not mean that when a member of congress yells out and calls the President a liar in the middle of a State of the Union speech I will hop in my car and drive north from Richmond and do the same. Yet, it does create a precedent for behavior by a public figure and it creates a potential new norm, particularly so for those that have even less impulse control than I do and less contact with reality than I do. I fully agree with Jeanne and Mark (and others) that words can be enormously powerful. We all, and particularly public figures, need to give careful thought and consideration to the tone and tenor of our rhetoric. I suspect Sarah Palin knew exactly what she was doing with her rhetoric and with her targeted crosshair web maps with regard to her “targeted” audience (much like George Allen with his infamous remark here in VA); she should be challenged (held accountable?), as should any irresponsible politician of any stripe, left or right. That is not to say she placed a gun in anyone hands, yet that sort of rhetoric is clearly intended to influence political behavior (if not, why use it?) … and for those with limited filters, it runs the risk of influencing other sorts of behavior as well.

I had a client several years ago that was a veteran and he heard a poetry professor say, “more can be accomplished with an open hand then with a clenched fist.” The comment stuck with him and tormented him for years … it caused him great cognitive dissidence and emotional turmoil as vet and as the son of family with a long history of service. Over time the remark led to a major shift in his life and his world view.

Whatever one’s beliefs or politics … words (and modeling) matter.
Making fun of me has little effect. I'll probably say worse about myself given the chance. Just let the low self esteem kick in.

Would it really matter if it turns out he was influenced by this hateful language or that? If he's never seen the SarahPAC map, does that make the map ok? If he never heard a hurtful word said of Giffords or Democrats or politicians, if he had never seen a sign talking about watering the tree of liberty... that doesn't make such things ok. We ALL need to take this as an object lesson and be more civil.
David Brooks called the accusations that Sarah Palin and other conservative politicians contributed to the murders in AZ, "vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness."

I agree.

Ross Douthat said:

"When our politicians and media loudmouths act like fools and zealots, they should be held responsible for being fools and zealots. They shouldn’t be held responsible for the darkness that always waits to swallow up the unstable and the lost."

I agree.
WF-- It's wrong to be a fool or a zealot. I'm comfortable with criticizing behavior that risks being a causal factor in violence.

I'm not saying it should be illegal; I think it is protected by the First Amendment. I'm saying that it is wrong and should avoided through personal discipline and restraint.

Do your really disagree with that?
Mark, I think you give the talking heads too much credit for their ability to understand what restraint is, much less exhibit it.
(and I'm not talking about the David Byrne-fronted Talking Heads. May they settle their differences and then show little restraint.)

I think our disagreement has always been over causation. If Sarah Palin directly or even indirectly caused the deranged killer in the AZ murders to commit his heinous act, I am ready to ostracize her.

I am waiting for the evidence.

Thus far, I do not think those who wish to connect their political enemies with the irrational actions of a deranged killer have made a very compelling case.

To paraphrase Douthat, I salute your tendency to speak out against loudmouth zealots and fools. In fact, you have done so in my defense from time to time, and for this I remain eternally grateful. Like you, I believe unhinged political discord does real damage to the political system. But, when you assert that it kills people, this line of argument is a bridge too far for me.

I don't think it is the primary cause of violence, but it is a contributing factor at times-- and that is bad enough.

Hey, don't you have to go talk about coaching at 7th and James now? See you there on Sunday...

I miss the Talking Heads! Until 1999, my principle understanding of Texas was from their movie True Stories.

Hey, this place is sick with pond hockey-- it's like beer league Utopia.
Tomorrow for Seventh--Thank Goodness! Need the 24 hours.

It will be good to have you back in Waco. See you then.
I watched as Brooks and Shields debated this issue last night on NewsHour. I have great respect for David Brooks and love his insights to most issues. He made some good points last night, including a meta comment about how he and Mark Shields routinely model wonderful civility as they often disagree, as they did last night. I felt Brooks, however, was uncharacteristically quick to react to and dismiss the issue. The possible influence of inflammatory rhetoric issue clearly irritated him. I found the circular logic of his viciousness comment strikingly simplistic for such a brilliant guy. Without a doubt there have been a lot of comments that go way beyond the data on all sides. The media/violence research evidence is a mixed bag. Causality can be a real challenge to determine, in even the most controlled social science studies; most behavior has multiple determinants, both direct and indirect … hard to tease it all out. This may have been purely a psychiatric issue with this young man. At the same time, to dismiss the possible influence of inflammatory rhetoric on his behavior strikes me as problematic as it is to claim Rush and Palin caused the shooting.

Mark, there can never be enough pond hockey!
Stricter gun laws do save lives. It is not prudent to allow excons/ convicted murderers to to legally conceal and carry a weapon. If your family member were murdered you would feel differently, I assure you, DA or not! Hopefuly, by the grace of God you will not every truly have to comprehend a loss of your family in a tragic senseless fashion. In the meantime, you may want to show more compassion when you "grasp the damage" as you describe in your own words.
This deranged young man did not live in a vacuum. He has lived in a violent society. In his lifetime he has seen the condoning of torture and pre-emptive wars. He has seen the pattern of first demonizing and then killing in increasingly violent movies, TV and war games He has listened to hate radio. He has watched on the nightly news our country demonize and then bomb our enemies. We are now targeting our latest demon, our Government.

He has only hopefully awakened us to face some realities. There are consequences of our words and actions. 150,000 citizens were killed by guns in the last ten years of this young man's life.

Crazy does not= violence. He is just the latest murderer. There are as many disturbed girls as guys. Rarely do they grab a weapon. We may never know why this nutcake killed? Or why the other 149,9994 victims died. We do know that nasty people are now talking about how gentle they are, so some good may come of this tragedy. But now what can we do about violence on the hockey ponds?
Anon 11:45 wins the award for craziest comment. By including a reference to "hate radio" (Where do I find that on my dial? I need more hate!) alongside the implication that violent movies, water boarding, and eventhe war in Iraq caused the shootings in Arizona, Anon 11:45 takes the liberal crackpot sweepstakes in a landslide.

It was a close contest though with Anon 11:24, who, in their haste to prove how great gun control laws are, pointed out that we shouldn't let convicted murderers carry guns. I had obviously forgotten up to this point the conservative position on this issue that murderers should get guns.
Anon 11:24:
"Stricter gun laws do save lives."

Actually gun laws were stricter over the last 20 years, yet the incidents of gun violence decreased as the laws have become more lax. Whether or not there is a cause and effect is to be debated, but your assertion is not based on any fact.

"It is not prudent to allow excons/ convicted murderers to to legally conceal and carry a weapon." - I agree 100%. In fact, in Texas we prohibit all felons from possessing them and results in another felony conviction if they are found with them. These are the last people we want with guns.

"If your family member were murdered you would feel differently, I assure you, DA or not!" - I would have to disagree with you on how I would feel. I base my opinion, on how I would feel, on all the murders I prosecuted. Each was committed by people who obtained their weapons illegaly. So I don't think, let alone, know that I would share your desires for stricter gun laws even in that situation.

"Hopefuly, by the grace of God you will not every truly have to comprehend a loss of your family in a tragic senseless fashion.
In the meantime, you may want to show more compassion when you "grasp the damage" as you describe in your own words." - I'm sorry if you think I was speaking without compassion for anyone's loss, but I was stating my beliefs that this tragedy shouldn't be used as an advancement of gun restrictions. Just because I feel this situation does not apply to that debate does not mean I take lightly any tragedy.

It does seem that tougher gun laws would have at least lessened the damage Loughner caused. Consider these two facts:

1) Despite his troubled past, Loughner got his gun legally, passing a background check.

2) The scope of the destruction was made possible by his use of an extended clip, and that type of clip was illegal until six years ago when, as you correctly say, gun laws were relaxed.

I don't think that settles any debate; it is only one case. But it is the case everyone cares about right now.

I agree that tougher laws MIGHT have lessened the impact. He MIGHT have just used 2 guns instead of an extended clip, he might have passedANY background check, given that no real criminal issues ever seem to have been attached to this nut.

Again, i have no objections to discussing a need for tougher gun control laws, but to state unequivocally about what would or would not happen is a bit simplistic. And i would always caution against such assertions while the sting of the events is still fresh. Time to reflect and gather facts is all i'm asking for because i find the reactionary rhetoric is unfounded at this time and based on emotion and nothing more.

-- Dallas Defense Attorney
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