The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords leaves members of Congress at a loss in more ways than one.

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Jan. 12 2011 7:24 PM

The Solution: Do Nothing

The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords leaves members of Congress at a loss in more ways than one.

See Slate's complete coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and arrest of Jared Lee Loughner.

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None of that's happening this time. One difference is that this shooting rattled Congress itself; most of Wednesday was spent on that Giffords resolution and on prayer services for other victims. But more important, this is not the Congress that passed the PATRIOT Act or the post-Virginia Tech bill. It's the Tea Party Congress. That was never clearer than when dozens of freshmen and staunch conservatives who are popular in the movement lined up to sign the Giffords condolence book, then explained to reporters why the worst possible response to the tragedy would be some new bill—on guns, on mental health, on anything.

"If I'm shot," Gohmert told me, "I want it prosecuted under the laws of the state of Texas, not federal law. That's just the way it is. There's just a lot more teeth in the state law. And if somebody pursues me and shoots me because of hatred for a group I'm part of, then I don't want it prosecuted under the hate-crime law that was so entirely unnecessary."

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Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., ruled out any gun laws immediately and suggested that local law enforcement was in the best position to prevent any future Tucsons. A mental health bill? "In California, we had a special income tax for mental health funding," he said. "It's since been rescinded, since we ran out of money! And I'm not sure you can point to that as a way to solve this. The question is, was this guy out there enough that people would have felt comfortable to haul him off to the funny farm, to use the old term of art?"

This might explain why so much of the discussion of Tucson has focused on factors that, according to what we know, had nothing to do with Tucson. Members of Congress from both parties fielded question after question today about whether they'd change their tone. Midway through the morning, the national dialogue turned to a video from Sarah Palin, who'd become the mascot for pre-Tucson mixing of gun metaphors and political metaphors. By the afternoon, Politico had five ready links to the Palin debate, including "Sarah Palin charges critics with 'blood libel,' " "Republicans disappointed at Palin," and the more meta "Sarah Palin's 'blood libel' claim draws criticism."

That criticism was led by Congress. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., used his time during the Giffords tribute to read off a list of "pretty awful" remarks by Republicans, which apparently had nothing to do with Loughner's decision to empty a clip into innocent people at a congressional event. Why not debate Palin, and why not debate the tone? By the end of Wednesday there was a USA Today/Gallup poll revealing that only 35 percent of Americans thought it was legitimate to blame conservatives for the tragedy, but only around 20 percent wanted more gun control. Recall why the Palin connection was made so often in the media. Giffords, a gun owner and Second Amendment supporter, said in a 2010 interview she worried about the "consequences" of Palin's "target" map. She did not say she suddenly supported more gun control.

Supporters of McCarthy's bill, like Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., were left to argue that they needed a shift in the national sentiment if they were going to get their way.

"We've got to go beyond specific, limiting legislation," said Holt. "We've got to change our gun-crazed society." He smiled wryly at what he'd just said. "Not easy to do!"

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