After Tragedy, Ariz. Looks to Expand Gun Rights

A man walks the grounds displaying his weapons for sale at the Crossroads of the West Gun Show at the Pima County Fairgrounds on January 15, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona. Today marks one week since Jared Lee Loughner killed six and injured several others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who he shot in the head with a 9-millimeter Glock semiautomatic pistol and who remains in critical condition.
Getty Images/Kevork Djansezian
PHOENIX - Arizona has become a national leader in the gun rights movement in recent years as the state enacted law after law to protect the people's right to bear arms nearly anywhere, at anytime.

The shooting rampage that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a former legislative colleague, has done nothing to slow down the Legislature.

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Gun rights bills were introduced in the days after the shootings last week, and more proposals are to come.

"I don't think it really changes anything," Republican state Sen. Ron Gould said of the mass shooting. "I don't see how gun control could have prevented that shooting unless you take guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens."

The shooting in Tucson brought new attention to the national gun control debate after authorities said the rampage was carried out by a man who couldn't get into the military because of his drug use and had repeated run-ins with police at his community college because of his bizarre mental behavior. Jared Loughner bought the 9 mm handgun legally at a Tucson gun store, and was also carrying extended magazines that hold 30 rounds of ammunition.

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Arizona Republicans remain adamant that the shooting will not dissuade them from pushing their pro-gun agenda.

They want new laws allowing college and university faculty members to be able to carry concealed weapons on campus, an issue that gained attention after the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech University. Only Utah has a law allowing concealed weapons on college campuses while 24 states have bans, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"There are going to be some nervous Nellies, so to speak, but I think that it will be overcome," said John Wentling, a leader of the Arizona Citizens Defense League, a gun owners advocacy group active at the Capitol. "We still have an obligation to protect constitutional and civil rights."

Bills already introduced this year in Arizona in the Republican-controlled Legislature include barring landlords and homeowner groups from restricting the right to bear arms in self defense, and expanding the current law that allows gun owners to display a weapon in self defense. And Wentling said his group's priority bill, which he wouldn't discuss, hasn't been unveiled yet.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a moderate Democrat, was barely out of the operating room after being shot through the left side of her brain before voices on both sides of those core issues and the political divide were lining up to promote their beliefs.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik, at a news conference Sunday, blamed a "climate of hatred," "mistrust of government" and "paranoia" for the Tucson shooting, a crime that again has seized the attention of Americans. Among the six killed were a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.

Dupnik chastised the Arizona legislature for lax gun laws and said the state had become "the Tombstone of the United States of America." He was referring to the lawless, late 19th century silver mining boom town in Arizona. It was home to many Wild West gunfighters.

Giffords herself had spoken of her concerns about the U.S. political atmosphere, even before the shooting. In an interview when her office was vandalized after she voted to support President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, she referred to the animosity against her by conservatives. Later she spoke of Sarah Palin's decision to list Giffords' seat as one of the top "targets" in the midterm elections.

Many Republican lawmakers emphasized the growing belief that Loughner was mentally unstable, not someone who was inspired by the kind of far right or tea party rhetoric that characterized the last election.

"It's probably giving him too much credit to ascribe a coherent political philosophy to him. We just have to acknowledge that there are mentally unstable people in this country. Who knows what motivates them to do what they do? Then they commit terrible crimes like this," said Arizona Republican Sen. John Kyl, the majority whip.

Arizona's permissive gun laws and the state's heritage dating to the Wild West days sometimes jolts newcomers, particularly in Phoenix and other metro areas where most residents live. Heads turned in 2009 when a man openly carried a semiautomatic rifle to a Phoenix protest outside a speech by President Barack Obama.

At the Legislature, some female lawmakers with concealed weapons permits have acknowledged carrying guns in their purses despite a state law prohibiting guns in public buildings. Visitors to legislative buildings are supposed to place their weapons in lockboxes.

Last year, Arizona become the third state to make it legal for adults to carry a concealed weapon without getting training and a background check. In 2009, the big change was allowing armed people in bars and restaurants, if they're not drinking alcohol and the establishments haven't posted signs against it.

House Speaker Kirk Adams said last year's bill to legalize carrying concealed weapons without a permit wasn't a mistake.

"Arizona remains a place that is respectful and adamant about our Second Amendment rights, and I think the people of Arizona support that," said Adams, one of 61 Republicans making up two-thirds of the 90-member Legislature.

Former Gov. Janet Napolitano signed several bills supporting gun rights between 2003 and 2008, but the Democrat vetoed others. When Napolitano resigned to become U.S. Homeland Security secretary in 2009, Republican Jan Brewer stepped into the governor's office, and more laws protecting gun owners were made.

Brewer signed bills into law that let people keep guns in locked vehicles at parking lots of businesses that prohibit guns and barred local governments from prohibiting a person with a concealed weapon permit from having a gun in a park.

Gun control proponents hope that the Tucson shooting can create momentum in pushing back against the various pro-weapon bills in the Legislature. They want to pass more regulation of gun shows while prohibiting sales of extended magazines like the one authorities say the suspected shooter used.

Still, Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat, acknowledges that such proposals have little to no chances of ever passing, but said "we have to start the education. I would hope that many members of the Legislature see it as a wake-up call."

Sen. Jack Harper, a Republican sponsoring the campus-carry measures, said he didn't want to be seen as trying to take advantage of the Tucson tragedy by citing it as reason to support his legislation, but he said it was vital, given the deadly shootings on university campuses and the Arizona Board of Regents' policy banning guns. The board oversees the state's schools.

"University professors are tired of feeling like sitting ducks," Harper said.