PHOTO GALLERY: Political assassinations in U.S. history
By Heather Maher
The attempted assassination of U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (Democrat, Arizona) and killing of six bystanders on January 8 has shocked Americans in the way that only violence against a political figure can.
In the aftermath, two groups doing some serious reflecting are elected officials, who in the wake of the public killing spree are questioning their own safety; and critics of America's permissive gun laws, who see the shooting as a tragedy that could have been prevented if guns weren't so easy to acquire and are calling anew for stricter controls on purchases.
Giffords' native Arizona, where she was gunned down while meeting with local voters, has some of the country's most permissive gun laws.
Federal law prohibits anyone younger than 21 from buying a handgun, but Arizona law allows 18-year-olds to do so. Guns are allowed almost everywhere, including inside government buildings, on school grounds, and in bars.
Last year, in a move that the country's biggest gun-owner advocacy group called "a huge victory," Arizona Governor Jan Brewer repealed a state law that had required gun owners to obtain permits to carry concealed weapons.
The Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence -- named for White House press secretary James Brady, who was shot in the head during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan -- has given Arizona one of its lowest ratings in the country.
Giffords is herself a gun owner and a defender of the state's laws who has called private ownership of guns "an Arizona tradition."
But Arizona's guns don't always stay in Arizona. A snap study by "The Washington Post" following the shootings found that in 2009, more than 1,600 guns purchased in Arizona were involved in out-of-state crimes.
The gun that 22-year-old Loughner reportedly used in his killing spree was a Glock 19 -- a semiautomatic handgun that is incredibly easy to fire several times quickly. Loughner purchased the gun legally in November after passing a background check.
Guns like Glocks were illegal a few years ago under an assault-weapons ban signed into law by former President Bill Clinton. In 2004, the law was due to expire and required a Congressional vote to extend it. The powerful gun-ownership lobby, led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), successfully defeated it.
At least one lawmaker has stepped forward to challenge pro-gun forces in the wake of the Arizona shootings.
Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat from New York, is a strong advocate of stricter gun laws who first ran for public office after her husband was one of six people killed in 1983 by a gunman on a New York City commuter train. She is preparing legislation that would ban the type of high-capacity weapon clip used by Loughner.
Paul Helmke, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has also called on Congress "to respond" to the tragedy by reinstating the assault-weapons ban.
Lawmakers are unlikely to do so, however. Hours after the news of the shooting broke, with official Washington in a state of uneasiness, members of Congress from both parties were defending existing gun laws as adequate and only in need of better enforcement.
Cozy With Constituents
The shooting has also raised questions about the public safety of elected officials.
In Washington, the U.S. Capitol and Congressional office buildings are fortress-like in their security, with metal detectors at every entrance and police a constant presence. But when lawmakers return to their home districts and states, they mingle openly in public at events, usually without protection.
When she was shot, Represntative Giffords was holding an event called "Congress on Your Corner," a common type of gathering where an elected official appears at a public venue and invites anyone to come and share what's on his or her mind.
It's the type of event that underscores how much citizens' access to elected officials is a cornerstone of American democracy. Voters expect to have regular opportunities to meet with their representatives, and for most elected officials, interacting with constituents is essential to winning reelection.
But the shooting has reminded legislators of the risks that come with appearing in public.
"I think it needs to be a wake-up call to members [of Congress] who have treated their own personal security in a cavalier manner," Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Democrat, Florida) who said on "Meet The Press" on January 9. "I know when I have town-hall meetings, which I have regularly, and increasingly even very open public meetings, there are always officers present."
According to the FBI, members of Congress have received some 236 death threats over the past 10 years.
The U.S. Capitol Police, which is charged with protecting members of Congress in Washington as well as in their home states, said it received dozens of calls over the weekend from worried legislators wondering how to protect themselves and their families.
On January 9, House Speaker John Boehner (Republican, Ohio) organized a rare conference call during which officials from the police and FBI briefed legislators, their spouses, and aides on when and how to report suspicious activities.
In Giffords' case, such advice wouldn't have helped. The man in the crowd with the gun came out of nowhere.