It may take some time before we learn the whole story behind this morning's shooting at a Republican congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., but early reports indicate the gunman, a Bernie Sanders supporter, harbored deep anger and frustration over the election of President Donald Trump.
James Thomas Hodgkinson apparently was armed with a rifle and a handgun, and he opened fire from outside the third base side of the field. Capitol police officers there to protect House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was critically wounded, responded with handguns as the ballplayers — including Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama and Sens. Rand Paul and Jeff Flake — hit the ground. It was a terrifying scene, witnesses said; Brooks estimated that more than 50 shots were fired.
The incident got the wall-to-wall coverage it did because of whom the victims were — members of Congress and their aides. Even though mass shootings are relatively common, most are not covered nearly so closely. For instance, just 50 miles to the north, in Baltimore, six people were killed and two more wounded in shootings over Monday night and into Tuesday morning. And on Wednesday, even as police were responding to the shootings in Alexandria, a gunman shot up a UPS facility in San Francisco, killing three people and then himself. Those incidents received relatively little coverage, because news is what's different, not what's achingly familiar.
The Alexandria shooter's apparent fierce opposition to Trump has led some to wonder whether the debased and vitriolic level of debate in the country is now inciting violence among disaffected voters. To that, we would only repeat what we said when Rep. Gabby Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was shot in 2011: that while the country is indeed in the grip of bitter polarization and partisan animosity, it is generally unfair to blame violent acts on the speech of others. Just as Martin Scorsese's movie "Taxi Driver" wasn't to blame for John Hinckley's shooting of Ronald Reagan, the attempted assassination of Gifford wasn't due to the rhetoric of Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. And neither Sanders nor his supporters can be blamed collectively for the actions of one deranged man in Alexandria.
Certainly American political discourse is too vituperative. Anger leads to resentment and stubbornness, and away from reasoned discussion and rational compromise. That's bad for the country and bodes unfavorably for the years ahead. Let's tone it down by all means. But there's a difference between even the most rancorous and impassioned speech, and violence.
When Giffords was shot in 2011 (and six other people died), calls went out for more rigid gun control measures. The injured congresswoman, who supports the right to own firearms, now devotes significant time and energy to strengthening gun control laws and limiting access to firearms. But little has been gained. Since 2011, more than 100 bills seeking to control access to guns — from tougher background checks to banning magazines holding more than 10 rounds to closing the "gun show loophole" — have failed to pass, primarily because of the cozy relationship between the gun lobby and Republican lawmakers.
The debate over gun control will likely become energized after today's shooting, the specifics no doubt tailored to the incident itself. Did the gunman procure his weapon or weapons legally? If not, how did he get them? Was he mentally ill? Should he have been eligible for a permit? There's a usual list of questions that arise in such shootings. That we have such a familiar de facto system for processing this kind of violence should be a ringing signal that we have, as a nation, tolerated routine gun violence for far too long.
We fervently hope that the victims of today's shooting recover fully. We also hope that the next time National Rifle Assn. lobbyists visit Capitol Hill with their guns-for-everyone agenda, Republican members of Congress greet them with more probing skepticism than they have in the past. But we're not optimistic. Even after getting shot at, Brooks remained steadfast Wednesday in his pro-gun, pro-2nd Amendment rhetoric, describing the incident as "one of the bad side effects of someone not exercising those rights properly."
Unfortunately, such "side effects" are daily occurrences. The Republicans who run Congress need to learn from the awful incident in Alexandria and drop their cynical posturing on behalf of the NRA. It's time to take a stand against gun violence.
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