The most remarkable aspect of President Barack Obama’s speech in Arizona this week was not what he said, but the theme he barely touched upon.
If Americans did not have easy access to weapons designed for no other purpose than killing humans, this sort of tragedy would be far less commonplace.
Obama did not emphatically make that point. His speech made only one short explicit reference to “gun safety laws.”
He knew that talking about what needs to change would have become the central focus of American political discourse for months to come.
In the short term, that would have damaged his political standing and that of his Democratic colleagues in Congress.
With Republicans now holding the majority in the House of Representatives, President Obama needs some help to get legislation through Congress.
Accordingly, his speech to the nation stressed civility in public political discourse.
There has been precious little of that in the past week.
Sarah Palin, the Republican former governor and presidential prospect came under vitriolic verbal fire following the Tucson shootings.
Palin is famous for the slogan “Don’t retreat, reload.”
Last year, her website showed a map of Democratic districts she believes are electorally vulnerable — including that of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — in the crosshairs of a rifle scope.
Nobody but a lunatic would see that intemperate image as a literal invitation to murder.
However, that didn’t stop some Democrats and pundits from imputing precisely that motive to Palin.
Regrettably, Jared Loughner, a 22-year-old who was suspended from college after five disruptive run-ins, appears mentally unstable.
He lives in Arizona, by many accounts one of the easiest places in America to buy a gun.
It is also reputed to have the worst services for the mentally ill.
Loughner was well known to legal authorities in his community.
An Arizona wildlife officer pulled him over on the morning of his murderous rampage for running a red light. Lacking cause for any further action after finding no outstanding warrants, the officer let Loughner go on his murderous way with a traffic warning.
One female student who knew and feared Loughner said she always sat near the door in classes she shared with Loughner so she could escape quickly when the inevitable shooting broke out.
Loughner’s victims in a shopping centre parking lot had neither that knowledge nor a chance to escape.
He went there a week ago today, apparently intending to assassinate Giffords, 40, for reasons that are wholly unclear.
News reports this week detailed how some Arizona gun shows advertise “We don’t do background checks” on prospective clients before selling them weapons like the Glock 19 pistol that Loughner used to kill six people and wound another 14.
It featured an oversized 33-bullet magazine, which Loughner emptied within 15 seconds.
He was taken down by brave, unarmed bystanders after he paused to reload.
He was also carrying another oversize bullet clip and two standard 15-round magazines.
Most people with mental illness are neither criminal nor violent. They are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.
Loughner, it appears, was in the minority.
Long before his deadly rampage, Loughner tried to enlist in the U.S. armed forces. He was found wanting, after failing a drug test, and refused.
Judged too unstable to carry a military weapon to defend fellow Americans, he had no difficulty buying a semi-automatic pistol to murder them.
Miraculously, Loughner’s presumptive target, Giffords, has survived a bullet going straight through her skull.
One of her physicians said he is “101 per cent sure” Giffords will survive.
Whether Giffords will ever regain the capacities she formerly held is another matter entirely.
Some signs, however, are encouraging.
Obama announced in his speech on Thursday that shortly after he and wife Michelle visited Giffords in hospital, she opened her eyes for the first time since being shot. The crowd erupted in spontaneous applause.
It’s an encouraging sign for Giffords’ near-term future.
A more encouraging sign for America’s long-term future would be opening its eyes to ludicrously easy access to weapons of massive destruction.
America has 85 guns in private hands for every 100 people. On Monday after the Tucson massacre, gun sales rose 60 per cent.
The problem isn’t the guns. It’s some gun owners, merchants, weak laws governing their sale and the woeful absence of sustained help for the mentally ill.
Every hour, more than four Americans are killed by guns.
Optimistic presidential talk about respectful political discourse alone won’t change that.
Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.