After shooting, Arizona ponders contradictions

By Pauline Arrillaga
Tucson, Arizona (AP)

The woman was a native Arizonan, her family going back six generations. Hours after her congresswoman was gunned down at a neighborhood supermarket, she stood at a candlelight vigil on a street corner and clutched a sign that read “Peace.”

Margaret Robles lamented the shooting in the town where she’d lived all her 64 years. She praised Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, agonized for all the victims. But her sadness was mixed with shame.

“I’m embarrassed to say I’m from Arizona,” said the retired teacher’s aide. “Too many things are happening.”

Yes, acts of violence can, and do, happen anywhere. And the dismay over the nasty political rhetoric of past years, which may or may not have contributed to the rampage, reaches far beyond this state’s borders.

Yet a feeling resonates among some in the days since the shooting: that Arizona has become the nation’s epicenter of divisiveness, the forefront of so much that’s gone wrong.

The local sheriff of 30 years, Clarence Dupnik, perhaps put it most bluntly, condemning his native state as “the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

“The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” he said. “And unfortunately Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital.”

Just as the tragedy has prompted national politicians and citizens elsewhere to rethink who we are and where we’re going as a country, it has left some here questioning the identity and ideals of a state that has come to exemplify a radical, antiestablishment, we’ll-do-things-our-way approach to governing.

The “meth lab of democracy,” comedian Jon Stewart called it last year, after Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed the anti-immigration law that instructs police to demand proof of a questionable person’s legal status. The measure, which inspired nationwide protests, boycotts and a flurry of lawsuits, was signed within a week of another law making Arizona the third state allowing people to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.

That very same week, some Republican state lawmakers were pushing a so-called “birther” bill that would have required the president to show his birth certificate to get on the state’s 2012 ballot. That one never made it to the governor’s desk but drove one Democratic legislator to declare: “We’re becoming a national joke.”

Intolerant. Ignorant. Bigoted. Corrupt. Crazy. They are words that, at one time or another, have been used to describe a place that is, in truth, not so easily explained.

Longtime state historian Marshall Trimble likes to say that Arizona is a land of “anomalies and tamales,” a contradiction of geology, geography, ethnicity, beliefs. It is a place of both pine trees and snowcapped mountains as well as saguaros and snake-filled deserts. Up north sits the nation’s largest American Indian reservation. Down south, towns share a border – and customs – with Mexico. In between, Midwestern snowbirds seek refuge from winter, choosing the golf courses and retirement communities of Arizona as their half-a-year hideaway.

“The Grand Canyon State” has awe-inspiring natural beauty and the kind of wide-open spaces rarely found amid the suburban sprawl and shopping malls that define so much of America. But those peaceful mesas have also been home to ugliness: Violence related to the smuggling of drugs and human beings, and militias that responded with armed patrols.

Still, whether entirely justified or not, Arizona’s history has turned the state into a stereotype that all too often.

There was the flap over the Martin Luther King holiday, in which Arizona in 1992 became the last state to create a paid holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader. As with last year’s anti-immigration law, charges of racism and bigotry flew. The state lost a Super Bowl over the controversy, boycotts ensued and the hip-hop group Public Enemy recorded a song in protest called “By The Time I Get To Arizona.”

People still often refer to this place as the “wild, wild West,” in large part because of lenient gun laws that have been criticized in the wake of the shootings. The suspect in the Giffords shooting, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, was able to buy a Glock semiautomatic pistol at a sports store despite past troubles with the law and being considered so mentally unstable that he was banned from his college campus.

The state law signed last year by Brewer did away with a requirement for residents 21 and older to attend safety classes and obtain gun licenses, allowing Loughner to carry his weapon, concealed, without a permit. Gun owners here may pack just about anywhere, including bars and restaurants. State legislators also are considering allowing students and teachers to have weapons on college campuses.

Arizona, Dupnik said, has become the “Tombstone of the United States of America” – a reference to the Arizona town where Wyatt Earp, “Doc” Holliday and the Clantons shot it out in the Gunfight at the OK Corral.


Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Amanda Lee Myers, Gillian Flaccus and Raquel Maria Dillon in Tucson, Arizona.