Yet even for those who insist that Arizona's society and politics had nothing to do with the shootings, one question remains: What did Arizona do to change things after the shootings? President Obama came to Tucson and gave a great speech in the packed University of Arizona basketball arena. "We recognize our own mortality," Obama said, "and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -- but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others." A nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse was founded at the university within a few weeks, dedicated to furthering "respectful civil engagement and reasonable political debate."
But so far, little or nothing has changed in the state. Just two days after Loughner's rampage, Arizona State Sen. Lori Klein announced that she carries a pistol in her purse even when she's on the Senate floor. "I pack," she bragged. In its first session after the shootings, the Legislature proudly declared the Colt Single-Action Army Revolver the official state firearm. It also cut $510 million from the state's health care budget, including services to the mentally ill. And it even attempted to make it legal to carry a gun without restriction on college campuses, a bill vetoed by Gov. Brewer, who said its language could have been interpreted to allow guns in high schools. Because of the funding cuts, Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, the agency that distributes public dollars to mental health clinics in Tucson, had to lay off 30 people and eliminate 20 other positions, so now there are even fewer qualified professionals to stop a potential schizophrenic killer. Right-wing talk shows and politicians and gun advocates continue to deny all responsibility.
It seems unlikely that Gabby will recover fully. Her speech is halting, her walk unsteady. But she is fully herself. With her typical honesty and humility, she resigned from Congress a few weeks ago, roughly a year before the end of her term. She made the announcement in a video in which she wore a smile and spoke slowly: "I don't remember much from that horrible day, but I will never forget the trust you placed in me to be your voice. ... I have more work to do on my recovery ... so to do what's best for Arizona, I will step down."
The state of Arizona will celebrate its 100th birthday this year. The bland, underfunded and dispirited official parties will largely ignore the social unraveling that has followed more than a half-century of spectacular residential growth in a landscape stripped of meaningful history. Instead, spectacles like those furnished by Sheriff Arpaio will attempt a convincing masquerade of real leadership. Gov. Brewer recently shook a scolding finger in the president's face when he landed at a metro Phoenix airport for an early campaign swing. Her cheap and swaggering memoir -- titled Scorpions for Breakfast -- highlights her signing of the state's draconian anti-immigration law. It got a quick boost in sales from those who loved her combative tone, though it served nothing but ego.
A much better example of the kind of leadership Arizona needs was provided by Gabby Giffords. Her actions at the Safeway in the moments before she was wounded -- reaching out to strangers to help them navigate the circles of power -- is a good foundation for a new beginning. Not just for Arizona, but for the nation as a whole.
This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.
Tom Zoellner teaches writing at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and has authored five books. This essay is adapted from A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America, published last month by Viking.