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Arizona Shootings Ratchet up Gun Control Debate

WASHINGTON - The shooting of a U.S. congresswoman and the killing of six others at a Tucson, Arizona, shopping center prompts Americans yet again to ask why. Are guns still too readily available? Does the nastiness of today's political debate inspire such tragic violence?

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.

Special Section: Tragedy in Tucson

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.

"For example, we're on Sarah Palin's targeted list, but the thing is, that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they have to realize that there are consequences to that action," Giffords said in a television interview during the 2010 congressional election campaign.

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In the hours after the shooting, Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate and tea party backer, issued a statement in which she expressed her "sincere condolences" to the family of Giffords and the other victims.

Defenders discounted any link between Palin-style politicking and the Tucson shooting.

"We have nothing whatsoever to do with this," Palin aide Rebecca Mansour said in a radio interview.

Out of respect for Giffords and the others caught up in the shooting violence, the House of Representatives delayed plans this week to repeal the health care law that was the focus of much ultraconservative anger nationwide as the issue was debated last year.

John Boehner, the new speaker of the House now that Republicans and their tea party allies have taken control of the lower chamber, also spoke to say an attack on any public servant was an attack on all.

He announced the delay in normal legislative business and said flags on the House side of the capitol would fly at half staff in remembrance of Giffords' slain aide, 30-year-old Gab Zimmerman. Obama later ordered all flags flown at half staff for a week.

FBI director Robert Mueller was dispatched to Tucson by Obama. At the news conference with Sheriff Dupnik, Mueller said the shooter, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, faced federal charges.

Mueller declined to answer a question about the efficacy of Arizona gun laws, but did say that Internet access for those promoting "hate speech and incitement to violence" were a "far greater challenge" for law enforcement than in past years.

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.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander concurred but added: "I think obviously we are much better off in our country if we peacefully assemble, treat each other with respect and condemn people who go over the line, particularly people who do it violently as this individual did yesterday."

Rep. Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, rejected arguments that U.S. gun laws were at fault, saying that it was not the gun that was to blame in the Tucson attacks but the shooter, Loughner. He used a Glock hand gun that Mueller said had been purchased in November.

As Time magazine points out, one question is why Loughner was allowed to buy a gun in the first place. Loughner was suspeneded last year from Pima Community College apparently because of mental health problems, and was also denied by the Army for unspecified reasons.

"It's unclear what other organizations or agencies might have been aware of Loughner's dangerous mental state," Nathan Thornburgh wrote in Time. "Still, he passed a background check, and late last year legally bought the 9-mm Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun allegedly used in the shootings."

Control of gun sales in the United States has been a divisive and heated issue for decades. The Second Amendment to the Constitution is held by supporters of a gun rights as a citizen's right to own a fire arm.

That issue rose to great prominence in the last election when it was raised by the tea party candidate who unsuccessfully challenged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. At one point in the campaign, candidate Sharon Angle said the government must be brought under control or citizens would resort to "Second Amendment remedies."

Giffords, as a centrist Democrat, supported gun rights.

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