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Wednesday, 12 January 2011 21:10

What price public service? Arizona shooting fuels discussion in WNC

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U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is getting the word out: from now on, he’ll be carrying a gun when meeting with constituents.

Just a short time ago such an announcement from a member of Congress probably would have been considered outrageous, headline provoking, over-the-top political rhetoric.

But not so much now, in the wake of the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Arizona, and the shooting deaths of six people standing nearby and the wounding of 11 others. Giffords was holding what has been described as a routine meeting with residents in her district when the massacre occurred.

“This weekend’s tragedy has touched many of us in a very personal way,” Shuler said. “With our thoughts on this tragedy, many of us are working with local law enforcement and the capitol police to coordinate safety measure for ourselves and our staff.”

Shuler worked closely with Giffords. He is co-chairman of the conservative Blue Dog caucus that Giffords, a former Republican, also belonged to. The two worked closely together on various pieces of legislation.

“I, like many of my constituents and staff in Western North Carolina, strongly support the Second Amendment and do exercise our right to legally and safely carry a firearm,” Shuler said. “In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to work closely with federal, state and local law enforcement to ensure that our political process is not deterred by the violent acts of a few.”

The shootings, in the words of one local politician, “give pause” to those who currently hold or might seek public office in the future — the price one pays for serving could be very high, maybe too high, given the level of angry rhetoric many believe helped fuel the attack in Arizona.

“As far as this tragic event preventing good citizens from seeking public office, I believe that if the political environment does not improve it will give pause to anyone willing to get in involved on all political levels, which is very unfortunate,” said Ronnie Beale, a veteran county commissioner in Macon County. “I also think this event speaks to the importance of maintaining and improving mental health services on all levels.”

The alleged shooter in the massacre had been expelled from a local community college for exhibiting bizarre behavior. His ramblings on the Internet also seemed incoherent, though a thread of seemingly extreme right-wing beliefs could be discerned.

Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University and an expert on North Carolina politics, said it’s obvious the nation’s political discourse has grown more virulent in the past few decades.

“There are scores of studies to show that incivility is on the rise in Congress and in our political debate in general,” Cooper said. “Although it’s not ‘the media’s fault,’ name-calling and negative attacks are certainly more newsworthy, and thus more covered than stories about politicians who play nicely.

“The problem, therefore, is not just that there’s more negative, toxic rhetoric, but that we’re more aware of it than we’ve ever been. Did this cause the shooting? Of course not,” said Cooper. “Sarah Palin’s crosshairs ad is no more responsible for this shooting than Marilyn Manson was for the Columbine shooting. It does, however, create an environment that doesn’t suppress this kind of thing.”

Bob Scott, a former news reporter who now serves as an alderman in Franklin, said he believes the antigovernment movement in the U.S. is a contributing cause in the Arizona shooting.

“I am concerned that Congress will do one of its knee-jerk reactions and pass bills to provide security for congressmen and senators at a huge cost to the taxpayer,” Scott said. “But if you think about it, most of the attacks on politicians are at the local level such as town halls and school board meetings. Politicians at the federal level are so insulated by staffers that it would be pretty hard to get near them. It is much easier to get to a local politician who has no staffers and is not surrounded by lobbyists.”

Scott, a Democrat, also raised another issue likely to dominate coverage of the shootings: the right to bear arms.

“I believe in gun ownership for target shooting and hunting,” Scott said. “But you don’t need an AK-47 or a Glock 9 mm with a 31-round magazine to go hunting. Those type weapons that the National Rifle Association wants everyone to be able to own, apparently also including those who are unstable, are designed to kill human beings. Not wild game.”

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