Our Opinion: Hate speech, guns, a deadly combination

Shootings in the United States are so common they make headlines and lead TV news stories only when there is something extraordinarily horrific or unique about them. The attack on congressional Republicans practicing for a baseball game Wednesday that critically injured House Majority Whip Steve Scalise is an example of the latter, and the outraged response was appropriate. But this time, will anything change?

The vile political climate in the nation has been justifiably decried in recent days. The apparent shooter, James T. Hodgkinson, who died after a shootout with police, was a liberal Democrat who had reportedly been distraught since the election of Donald Trump as president. Hate speech is poisonous, and it can too easily lead to violence in a country where guns are readily accessible. This latter point has been secondary in the post-shooting discussion, perhaps because Americans are weary of the debate about guns and believe nothing will ever change.

"There's a sense of needing to change the tone of the conservation," said First District Congressman Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat, on the day of the shooting (Eagle, June 15). There was a brief shining moment when Washington Democrats and Republicans changed that tone, uniting to decry the shooting and calling for an end to divisive political rhetoric. Then began the backslide to business as usual.

Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, blamed "the cultural voices of the Left" for inciting violence, dragging in former President Barack Obama for specific blame. Representative King's comments were unfortunately echoed by other right wing politicians and pundits. When Democrats have decried right-wing hate speech following shootings in mosques or African-American churches they have been pilloried for "politicizing" tragic events. If that is true, then it must apply to Republicans as well.

More encouraging was the comment by Representative Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, who said Thursday that assigning blame to one side or the other isn't constructive. His goal, he added, was to focus on "what I can do better." Finger-pointing, scapegoating and blame-shifting currently define politics, and countering that with individual efforts to make positive change would help cool the overheated political climate.

The shootings in Alexandria, Virginia were particularly dismaying because the Republicans were practicing for a ballgame against their Democratic counterparts, a game that is one of the few remaining vestiges of bipartisan comity in Washington D.C. U.S. Representative Silvio Conte, a Pittsfield Republican, played for the GOP team and managed it for more than a decade.

Politics has always been rough in Washington, but there was a time not that long ago when Republicans and Democrats could meet for dinner or drinks after a long day of battling in the House and Senate. Those meetings kept the debate congenial and could even lead to old-fashioned legislative compromises. That perspective is needed today more than ever given the way the way in which social media bile, invective and fake news have raised the political temperature beyond the boiling point.

As far as the gun debate goes — well, there isn't one. The gunman used an assault-style rifle in the shooting, according to ABC News, the same model used by Micah Xavier Johnson last year to gun down five Dallas police officers. That it is legal to have such a weapon in the U.S. doesn't mean that possession of such a weapon should be legal. The legality of the weapon is of no consolation to those gunned down in Alexandria.

By its inaction in response to the massacre of schoolchildren in Sandy Hook, Connecticut in 2012, Congress made a clear statement that no shooting was abhorrent enough to prompt action against the gun violence epidemic. "I wish I could say that because members of Congress are involved there will be changes to gun laws," wrote state Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat, in an email to The Eagle. "But if 20 babies can be killed in their school and we didn't have the will to make changes, I don't have any confidence we ever will."

Change isn't coming in Washington, but Massachusetts has strict gun laws, and with the lowest death rate per capita among the 50 states in 2015, those laws have been proven effective. There is still much that can be done on a statewide basis to confront gun violence.

In contrast to the team approach needed to address gun violence, however, reducing hate rhetoric is something that can be done on an individual basis. Virginia Representative Cedric Raymond, a member of the Democratic congressional baseball team and a friend of the injured Representative Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, responded to the hate speech poisoning America by quoting Michael Jackson: "If you want to make a change, start with the man in the mirror." Those who engage in hate rhetoric from the left, right or any other angle should start there.


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