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How violence eats away at democracy

Gabby Giffords

For years, one of my favourite things about serving in Congress was getting the opportunity to interact with my constituents. I loved chatting with them about our beloved state of Arizona and the policies I was fighting for. Even when we disagreed, we did so respectfully. We found common ground without vilifying each other.

This, I thought, was what representative democracy should look like.

That’s why one of my first priorities after being elected for a third term was to host a “Congress on Your Corner” event outside a grocery store in the Tucson area. A long line of people waited there to meet me that day in January 2011. Six of them would never return home; 13 of us had our lives changed for ever by a bullet from a gun.

When I heard that Conservative Member of Parliament Sir David Amess was stabbed to death in Britain this month while meeting with constituents, I was horrified and heartbroken. Amess was doing exactly what I was doing on that day near Tucson — listening, connecting. But he paid for his public service with his life.

After I was shot ten years ago, that act of hateful violence was decried as a low point in civil discourse. Unfortunately, polarisation and extremism have only gotten worse over the past decade. Harassment and threats against government officials are no longer the exception but more the norm.

As I write this, five men are awaiting trial for plotting to kidnap Michigan Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer last autumn. These men, reportedly upset by actions Whitmer had taken to curb the coronavirus, are accused of going so far as to scout the governor’s second home.

In her victim impact statement, the governor wrote, “Threats continue. I have looked out my windows and seen large groups of heavily armed people within 30 yards of my home. I have seen myself hung in effigy. Days ago at a demonstration, there was a sign that called for ʽburning the witch’. For me, things will never be the same.”

This is not what representative democracy should look like.

There should not be a “before” and “after” for elected officials, like there is for Whitmer and like there is for me. Putting your name on the ballot should not mean a comment you make or a vote you take may lead someone to threaten your life — or, even worse, act on that threat.

Elected officials are not the only public employees who face threats of violence. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 per cent of 26,000 public health workers surveyed in July said they felt bullied, threatened or harassed because of their work during the pandemic. My friend, David Chipman, who was nominated to be the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, faced threats of violence that made him fear for the safety of his family.

As the stabbing of Amess makes all too clear, the problem of politicised violence is endemic around the world. But in the United States, this problem is exacerbated by our tragically lax gun laws.

Gun violence has surged across our country in the past two years, with an estimated 45,000 gun deaths in 2020 — an increase of 15 per cent over 2019. Gun sales have similarly skyrocketed. If more guns made people safer, as the gun lobby claims, we would have much less gun violence than other developed nations, such as Britain. Instead, we have much more.

If more of the insurrectionists who stormed the US Capitol had been armed on January 6, I fear the outcome could have been much worse than it was. The District’s relatively strong gun laws likely played a role in limiting the firearms brought into the Capitol — for which I am exceedingly grateful because one of those inside the building was my husband, Mark Kelly, the Democratic senator from Arizona. I feared for his life then, as he had feared for mine ten years earlier. Both of us went into public service because we were eager to do just that: to serve. We never imagined that by answering this calling, we would be risking our lives.

If we want to encourage the next generation of leaders to pursue public service in its many forms, we must take violent threats and harassment seriously. We must take steps to curb armed intimidation of the sort we saw at state capitals and peaceful racial justice protests throughout 2020.

My organisation, Giffords, often talks about how gun violence is both a public health crisis and a public safety threat. Armed intimidation and threats of violence are also a rot eating away at the heart of our democracy. We must protect our democracy, and those who represent us within it, by refusing to allow guns and violence to be a part of the democratic process.

Gabby Giffords, a Democrat, represented Arizona’s 8th Congressional District from 2007 to 2012

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Published October 25, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated October 24, 2021 at 5:05 pm)

How violence eats away at democracy

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