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Wild West's Violent Ethos Deeply Ingrained in Arizona's Gun Culture Wild West's Violent Ethos Deeply Ingrained in Arizona's Gun Culture

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Homepage (Subscribers) / TRAGEDY IN ARIZONA

Wild West's Violent Ethos Deeply Ingrained in Arizona's Gun Culture

History of violence in Arizona hasn't halted gun law liberalization.

Arizona has history with guns.(PHOTO / James G. Howes)

photo of Jason Dick
January 11, 2011

TUCSON, Ariz. -- This didn’t come out of the blue.

The shooting of 20 people here on Saturday, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., has provoked national outrage, and the spectacle of crime-scene tape cordoning off an entire shopping center here in an upscale neighborhood is a shock to behold.

"This kind of thing doesn’t happen in Tucson" is a familiar refrain among citizens of Arizona’s second-largest city. But it does happen in Tucson, as evidenced by a 2002 shooting at the University of Arizona nursing school that left four dead, and the greater area’s legacy of violence stretches back to the Old West -- Giffords’s district is home to Tombstone, site of the shootout at the O.K. Corral on October 25, 1881, when three men died and Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday went on to become folk icons.

 

Look no further than the roadside billboard advertisements for Old Tucson Studios, just outside the city limits, which depict gunfighters with long guns and long mustaches, aping the Earp visage.

Arizona’s reputation as the Wild West is at times cartoonish, but the state’s gun laws are among the most permissive in the nation, and legislators are contemplating opening them up again as the new legislature gets under way today.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence scored Arizona’s gun laws a 2 out of a possible 100 last February. But since then, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed two measures further relaxing the state’s laws.

Last April, Brewer signed legislation that removed a requirement that individuals acquire a permit to carry a concealed weapon anywhere that open carry of a firearm is allowed. Anyone 21 years or older and legally allowed to possess a firearm is now able to carry a concealed firearm with no training.

She also signed legislation that exempts guns manufactured in Arizona from federal regulation, provided the firearm in question is made in Arizona, purchased in Arizona, and does not leave Arizona. The practical effect of this law is less than the concealed-carry law, due to the lack of manufacturers in the state, but critics of the law claim it opens a loophole custom-made for abuse by criminals.

Regardless, Jared Lee Loughner, the suspect in Saturday’s shootings, was in legal possession of the Glock 9-mm handgun he allegedly used. Even absent the state’s new concealed-carry law, if he had been walking down the sidewalk of the shopping center with his handgun holstered, he would have been within his rights.

The two points that the Brady Campaign awarded Arizona arose from that fact that the state does not compel colleges and universities to allow firearms on campus. But that could change this legislative session.

Rep. Jack Harper, a Republican from the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, is sponsoring legislation to allow faculty members and students on Arizona’s college campuses to carry firearms in the classroom. If the measures are signed into law, the Brady score would effectively go to zero.

According to Brewer press aide Paul Senseman, the governor hasn’t taken a position on those measures. “She does not typically announce positions on state legislation prior to any public hearings,” he said.

The National Rifle Association has yet to weigh in on the measures. Asked about the legislation, NRA spokeswoman Rachel Parsons said, “At this time, anything other than prayers for the victims and their families would be inappropriate.”

The Brady Campaign is vowing to fight the campus measures. “We feel strongly that this is a dangerous, radical, extreme idea, and we’re planning to fight the measures fiercely,” said Brian Malte, director of state legislation for the Brady Campaign.

According to Malte, 22 states have rejected similar measures since the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech shootings, including such typically pro-gun states as Indiana, South Dakota, and Louisiana. Only one state, Utah, allows students to carry guns on campus, and its law predates the Virginia Tech massacre.

But any attempt to push gun control goes against Arizona’s culture. Recent shootings have not led to a clampdown on guns. If anything, they've done the opposite.

Consider the nursing school shooting. On October 28, 2002, Robert Flores, a nursing student having trouble passing his classes, went on a rampage, executing three of his instructors before killing himself. He was also a Gulf War veteran with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder.

And it was less than a week ago that a gunman engaged in a shootout with law enforcement officers at Chandler Fashion Center, in a Phoenix suburb not unlike the well-groomed Tucson foothills where Giffords was gunned down. No one was hurt in that gunfight, but having taken place three days before the Tucson shooting, it has become national news.

Brewer herself had a close call in August 1997 as a Maricopa County supervisor when a gunman shot fellow supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, a Democrat, at a board meeting. Wilcox survived. But the shooting was preceded by talk radio attacks on Wilcox, with exhortations to confront her. Gunman Larry Naman said he shot her for voting in favor of raising the sales tax to help pay for the Arizona Diamondbacks' baseball stadium. Naman, a homeless man, expressed no remorse for his actions and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was released last year after serving 12.

The difficulty of clamping down on gun laws here might be best illustrated by the positions of Giffords herself, who is a proud gun owner. One of the guns she owns is a Glock 9-mm pistol similar to the one Loughner allegedly used Saturday.

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