We were horrified the day a bullet fired by a mentally disturbed young man tore through the brain of a public official in the prime of life. We were inspired to see the victim miraculously recover.
I might be talking about Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who announced Sunday that she will resign from Congress this week to focus on rehabilitating from her shooting last year by Jared Loughner. But I might also be talking about James Brady, who was cut down on March 30, 1981, by John Hinckley, Jr., in an attempted assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan.
Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and has spent most of the past three decades confined to a psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C. Loughner has been ruled mentally unfit to stand trial. Legal wrangling continues over whether the government can forcibly medicate Loughner in order to improve his condition enough to permit a trial to proceed.
Giffords made her announcement in a professional-quality video, posted on YouTube, which looked like a campaign commercial except for the message that it delivered.
“I have more work to do on my recovery, so to do what is best for Arizona, I will step down this week,” the congresswoman told her constituents. But she hinted strongly that she thinks she may have one more comeback in her.
“I’m getting better every day,” she added. “My spirit is high. I will return, and we will work together for Arizona and this great country.”
There are important political implications in Giffords’ decision, and some people undoubtedly will view her withdrawal through a political lens. By resigning now, rather than serving the balance of her term and simply choosing not to run in the November election, Giffords will force Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, to call a special election. A primary must be held 80 to 90 days after Giffords’ seat becomes vacant, and a general election must be scheduled 50 to 60 days after that. Whoever wins, Republican or Democrat, will serve the remainder of Giffords’ current term, and will have an incumbency advantage when the November election rolls around.
I don’t expect to hear much public criticism of the highly admired Giffords, however, and I don’t think she deserves any. Serving out her term would have meant either short-changing her constituents, by depriving them of the full energy and attention of their representative, or diverting much of her strength from her effort to make the best possible long-term recovery. Giffords’ choice is perfectly reasonable, and it would be extremely unfair to accuse her of acting politically. She is, after all, a politician; her personal decisions inevitably have political consequences.
James Brady never returned to work at the Reagan White House, though he officially retained his title as presidential press secretary until the day Reagan left office. He became best known for advocating stricter gun control laws following his shooting.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Act, which mandated federal background checks in many - though far from all - handgun sales. The legislation’s history says something about the way our law and our politics on firearms have evolved over the past several decades.
Reagan and his Republican successor, George H. W. Bush, both opposed even the relatively mild gun control provisions in the Brady Act. That was one reason the law did not get enacted until Clinton, a Democrat, took office. But the bill’s backing was not strictly partisan. The House of Representatives’ 238-189 majority for the legislation included 54 Republicans, and the 63-36 approval in the Senate counted 16 GOP senators in the yes column.
Giffords’ shooting, in contrast, brought virtually no groundswell for gun restrictions among politicians of either party, though it did trigger some silliness about whether 2010 political ads with crosshairs over “targeted” Democrats (including Giffords, who barely kept her seat that year) were a subtle call for violent attacks rather than a metaphor for campaign action. In a generation’s time, we have gone from robust debate over guns to no debate over guns, while we instead debate the manner in which we use gun-related symbols in our debates.
The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in McDonald v. Chicago upheld citizens’ constitutional right to keep at least some types of weapons in their homes, but did not rule out all legal restrictions on guns. In theory, the issue remains open to political discussion, but in many places, including Arizona, the issue is closed in practice. If Giffords hopes to return to elected office, and if she really meant it when she said in this week’s video that “Arizona is my home. Always will be,” I don’t expect her to follow the path of gun control advocacy that James Brady set out as he recovered from his shooting, decades ago.
The courageous congresswoman from Arizona will have to follow her own path. She will be an inspiration wherever it takes her. If it brings her back to public life someday, so much the better.