Heated political rhetoric drives unstable people to commit violence, according to a majority of voters surveyed after the shootings of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others in Tucson, Ariz.
More than half of those surveyed — 52 percent — said they believed that charged debate can push unbalanced people over the edge, while 41 percent said they did not. Thirty-six percent of voters blamed liberals and 32 percent blamed conservatives for the harsh tone of political speech, according to the Quinnipiac University poll.
Only 15 percent, though, said that overheated political rhetoric was the main reason for the Jan. 8 incident. Twenty-three percent blamed it on the mental health system and 9 percent on lax gun-control laws. Forty percent said they thought that the shooting could not have been prevented.
“Americans seem to be rejecting the blame game for the Arizona shooting,” Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Connecticut, said in a statement. “By far, the largest number thinks this tragedy could not have been prevented.”
Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who won a close re-election bid in November, was meeting constituents outside a Tucson supermarket when 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner allegedly opened fire with a legally purchased automatic pistol, wounding Giffords and 13 others and killing six, including a 9-year-old girl, Christina Green, and a federal judge, John Roll.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, some public officials, including Pima County, Ariz., Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, criticized the strident language used by television and radio talk show hosts and some politicians.
Giffords’s name was listed and her district marked with a gun sight’s cross hairs on a map of 20 House Democrats targeted for defeat in the 2010 midterm elections by SarahPAC, the political action committee of Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate.
The map was posted on Palin’s Facebook page March 23 and was still there at the time of the shootings. Authorities investigating the shootings haven’t discovered any link to politics.
At a Jan. 12 memorial service for victims of the rampage, President Barack Obama called on Americans to refrain from hate-filled political speech. “What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do,” he said.
Among those polled who identified themselves as liberals, 71 percent said conservatives were more responsible for using heated political rhetoric; 57 percent of self-identified conservatives blamed liberals. Moderate voters blamed conservatives over liberals, 36 to 31 percent.
Questions about the Arizona shooting were asked Jan. 10 and 11 as part of a larger Quinnipiac national survey conducted from Jan. 4 to Jan. 11. The questions about the shooting were asked of 581 voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points; the larger survey involved 1,647 registered voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points. The poll was conducted by live interviewers calling land lines and cell phones.
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