Political Assassinations: Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords
Chapter 18 of my recently released book, Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders, discusses the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords.
Giffords had just entered her third term in the United States House of Representatives from Arizona on January 8, 2011, when she held a “Congress on Your Corner” event to meet constituents outside a Safeway store in Casa Adobes, a suburb of Tucson, Arizona. As the congresswoman greeted participants, a man emerged from the crowd shooting a 9mm Glock pistol. He struck 19 people, killing six, including a federal judge, John Roll, and nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Green.
Giffords was struck in the head. Only the quick thinking of her intern, Daniel Hernandez, Jr., who immediately administered first aid, saved the congresswoman’s life. In the meantime, bystanders wrestled the gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, to the ground and detained him until police arrived.
Grievously wounded, Giffords was transported to the University Medical Center of Tucson for treatment for a head wound. The bullet had traveled through her head without crossing the midline of the brain, which meant she had hopes for surviving the attack. Indeed, she experienced a remarkable recovery in the months and years that followed. Despite her improvement, Giffords resigned from Congress on January 25, 2012, to focus on further recovering her health.
Loughner, 22 years old at the time of the shooting, was described by people who knew him as a normal, caring young person until just a few years before the incident. He began to abuse drugs and eventually was suspended from Pima Community College for disrupting several classrooms. He espoused all manner of conspiracy theories to friends and even expressed his distaste for Congresswoman Giffords, whom he characterized as a “fake.” In 2007, Loughner had asked the congresswoman a question at a public event and did not believe she adequately answered his question. “What is government if words have no meaning?” he had asked. Aside from Giffords, Loughner also told acquaintances that he was displeased with President George W. Bush as well as the government in general.
Immediately following his arrest, Loughner appeared to be insane. After numerous medical and legal hearings, however, a federal judge determined that Loughner was competent to stand trial. To avoid the death penalty, he agreed to plead guilty to 19 felony counts. In November 2012, Loughner was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. As of this writing, he is serving his time in the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, a prison that provides medical and psychological services for inmates.
Jared Lee Loughner joined the ranks of many other American assassins and would-be assassins. He was a mentally disturbed Type 4 loner who had difficulty making friends, male or female, or holding a job for a long period of time. He somehow transferred his own feelings of inadequacy and his disaffection for the world onto a public figure. If he showed no remorse for his violent deeds, it was because he was incapable of looking beyond himself and empathizing with another person. Like so many assassins, Loughner believed that he was justified in inflicting his pain on others. Terrorists and conspirators frequently plan their crimes ahead of time and leave a distinct trail of clues if investigators know how and where to look. Mentally disturbed loners, by contrast, act for their own confused reasons, usually without leaving a trail. If they do leave clues behind, their ravings can be confusing and perhaps incomprehensible. With the benefit of hindsight, their diary entries, videos, and blog postings reveal a deeply disturbed personality capable and willing to inflict harm on others.
Many persons entertain feelings of despair, and utter threats against public figures for slights, real or imagined. Few act on their impulses. Ferreting out genuine threats from the multitudes who threaten violence but represent no significant danger to others remains an ongoing challenge.