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Firing Blanks

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Is there anyone who believes the Tucson shootings will change anything? That the deaths of six people, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge, will lead to stricter gun control? Or even just a slightly more civil political debate? 

Probably not in Pittsburgh. 

Less than two years ago, after all, we lost three police officers to a deranged gunman of our own. Did that prompt any softening in the national mood? Ask Gabrielle Giffords.

Of course, there's little evidence that right-wing rhetoric motivated Jared Loughner, the accused Tucson shooter, to try to assassinating the Democratic Congresswoman. But as Pittsburghers know, even if there were evidence, it wouldn't matter. 

By most accounts Richard Poplawski, the man accused of the Stanton Heights shootings, actually was a fan of right-wing talk radio. "Rich, like myself, loved Glenn Beck," a friend of Poplawski told journalist Will Bunch, adding that Poplawski was especially fixated on Beck's warnings of a complete societal breakdown.

That doesn't make Beck responsible, of course. The people who commit these crimes are diseases looking for a symptom. And they can find a trigger for their madness anywhere. Loughner's reputed reading habits -- which range from Karl Marx to Ayn Rand -- demonstrate how diverse a deranged gunman's literary tastes can be. For that matter, President Ronald Reagan was nearly assassinated by a guy inspired by the movie Taxi Driver

So it's unfair to say such crimes result from right-wing rhetoric. Better to say they merely reflect it. Put simply: This is how things would be if people took that language seriously -- if they really believed, for example, that "Second Amendment remedies" might be necessary to avert the threat of death panels being established by traitorous Democrats.  

The vast majority of people who use such rhetoric don't take it seriously. Using labels like "traitor" and "terrorist" is the right-wing political equivalent of Viagra -- it's marketed to old white guys who need a spark to get excited. When they say Democrats are "traitors," they mean it metaphorically. Even Glenn Beck occasionally takes a moment to note that -- while George Soros may be destroying your country, your freedom and your children's futures -- why, that's no reason to lash out.  

So the problem isn't that crazed gunmen occasionally echo contemporary political rhetoric. The problem is that plenty of contemporary political rhetoric sounds like it's being muttered by crazed gunmen. You might think that seeing a Democrat get gunned down might check the urge to demonize Democrats. Not because of a causal relationship, necessarily, but because it just seems indecent. Because it reminds you that, whatever your disagreements, you do share a common humanity -- a common vulnerability -- that your words have long ignored.

But these days, conservatives are too busy making themselves out to be the victims. You can hear it in Sarah Palin's shrill denunciations of "blood libel," just as you could hear it after the Stanton Heights shootings, on talk radio or the online gun-rights forums Poplawski frequented. ("[H]ow long will it be before some of us are faced with the choice of give up our guns or resist?" one participant fretted hours after the shooting.)

Political celebrities use First Amendment freedoms to stoke our fear, and then we rally around Second Amendment freedoms to defend ourselves from the phantoms they create. And when some lunatic lashes out at those demons, we grip the gunstock even tighter. The Arizona Republic reports that sales of Glocks and large-capacity magazines -- the type apparently used in Tucson -- have surged since the shooting. Gun owners fear the magazines will be banned in the future.  

To borrow Sarah Palin's happy phrase, these folks aren't retreating, they're reloading. And I don't mean that metaphorically. 

They have nothing to worry about. The lesson of Pittsburgh is that once the prayer vigils are over, nothing changes. If Poplawski's access to an AK-47 didn't prompt a serious look at firearm laws, neither will the extended magazines used in the Tucson shooting. 

Which is why those self-styled Tea Party radicals are wrong. The Tree of Liberty won't be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It will be watered -- over and over -- with the blood of police officers, public officials and 9-year-old girls.  

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