Arizona Shooting Spree Puts Spotlight on Gun-Toting Candidates

Firearms big and small were widely used as metaphors in 2010 campaigns.

January 10, 2011, 7:50 PM

Jan. 11, 2011— -- When Alabama Agriculture Commissioner hopeful Dale Peterson released an ad proudly touting his rifle, the little-known candidate quickly became a YouTube sensation.

Congressional candidate Rick Barber of Alabama also expanded his fan base with his politically charged "Gather Your Armies" ad, while Congressional hopeful from Arizona Pamela Gorman raked in more than 300,000 clicks for her ad featuring more gun shots than actual words.

These gun-toting candidates may have gotten their few minutes of fame, but Saturday's shooting spree in Tucson has many wondering whether this kind of imagery sends the wrong signal.

The target of Saturday's shooting, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' own opponent Jesse Kelly invited his supporters to "Target for Victory" and fire an automatic M16 with him.

Potential 2012 presidential candidate Sarah Palin has especially taken heat for telling her supporters not to retreat, but reload, and for her famous map that put crosshairs at specific candidates' districts. Palin has said that neither was meant to incite violence, but many are saying that rhetoric is not enough.

Democrats themselves used a bullseye to illustrate which states they were targeting in a 2004 map by the Democratic Leadership Council.

Gun imagery has no place in politics, says Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pa., who is penning legislation to make it illegal to place crosshairs on a Congress member's district.

"Using guns is threatening and the bullseyes and the crosshairs, that should have no place in any kind of political debate," Brady told ABC News. "Talk your issues, articulate your issues, that shouldn't -- on both sides -- play into any kind of political discussion."

Confrontational politics aren't a new phenomenon. Neither are gun-toting candidates. But this most recent example of violence, in which 22-year-old Jared Loughner allegedly shot Giffords at point blank range, has touched many people's nerves.

Tucson Tragedy Sheds Light on Gun Toting Candidates

Like tragedies before this, the Tucson incident is likely to temper the sharp political tones for a little while, but how long that lasts remains to be seen, experts say.

The bombing in "Oklahoma City changed things for a little while. 9/11 changed things for a little while. And this will as well, but we're Americans and we speak freely and emphatically and that will return," said Larry Sabato, political scientists and director at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

"I do think it gives opponents of extremist rhetoric a very useful argument, 'remember Tucson,' and that I'm sure will become a phrase we'll hear a lot and maybe that will deter or at least will bring condemnation on people who go too far," he said.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., one of the few Democrats to feature guns in his campaign ads, expressed doubts Monday that he would run the same ad again today.

"I can't say that we would. I really can't," Manchin said. "It is a much more sensitive thing that we are dealing with right now. With that I will say -- that was a metaphor. We were talking about a piece of legislation. You're talking about an act of a crazed, deranged individual. I don't think the two are related at all. But it would have made anybody more sensitive to that."

In the campaign ad, Manchin, touting his National Rifle Association endorsement, shot a bullet at the "cap and trade bill" as a symbolic rejection of the energy legislation being discussed by Democrats.

Gun imagery is no novelty in American politics and many politicians, both Republicans and Democrats alike, are avid supporters of gun rights.

Even Giffords supported relatively relaxed gun control laws and posted pictures on her page showing her shooting.

But the recent tragedy may lead to politicians' tempering their tones, especially as they gear up for the 2012 election cycle.

Already, congressional leaders -- many of whom have resorted to screaming on the House floor in recent years -- have demonstrated a sense of bipartisanship on security issues that hasn't been seen in a long time.

"I do think that we need to cut back our rhetoric. We need to talk about our issues positively," Brady said. "We need to cut back our rhetoric in Congress as we debate back and forth. We can absolutely positively disagree without being totally disagreeable and totally negative toward each other."

Experts are doubtful this sense of decorum will last.

"After 9/11, unity lasted a year," Sabato said. "That faded, too, because there was an election campaign and election campaigns always lead to rhetorical excesses."

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