IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Lessons of Tucson: Can we learn them?

A week after the shootings, a city and a nation struggle for answers to why this happened in Tucson — and how such a tragedy can be avoided. NBC News' Mike Taibbi reports.
Image: Mourners Gather For Funeral Of 9-Year-Old Girl Killed In Tucson Shooting
Roxanna and John Green, parents of Christina Taylor Green, stand with their son, Dallas, as they arrive for the funeral of their 9-year-old daughter on Thursday.Pool / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

On Friday morning, with the sun bouncing off Mount Lemmon and the foothills on the northeast edge of Tucson, the dog run at Morris K. Udall Park had plenty of customers. It’s a ritual here: A few dozen regulars gather after first light to watch their dogs frolic and test each other, and talk among themselves about the issues that often test their own lives.

All week, of course, they’ve talked about the shootings — the victims and survivors, the visit by President Barack Obama, and the monstrous specter of the accused gunman, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, grinning hideously in his mug shot.

Someone asked if it would’ve been better if Loughner had shot himself. Or if he had been gunned down by responding police, as has happened in the concluding acts of other mass murders.

“It’s not like he’s going to talk, explain why he did it,” said Lana Schwark, holding her schnauzer, Freddie.

Mourning continues after a tragedy where 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner attempted to assassinate U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in a shooting that killed six people and wounded 14.

Schwark, a respiratory technician at the University Medical Center, where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and other victims of the shootings rampage were taken, shook her head at the notion that society will benefit in any way through the public trial and continuing psychological assessments of a still-alive Jared Loughner.

“I mean, what have we really learned about Susan Smith, that South Carolina woman who drowned her sons, or about John Wayne Gacy?” she asked, referring to Chicago’s “Killer Clown,” who murdered 33 boys and young men in the mid-1970s, many discovered buried beneath his house. They weren’t killed at the scene or executed after a trial, Schwark said. Another dog-owner added, “It’s not like anyone learned anything to prevent the next one.”

Each story like this is a new horror, of course. I watched colleagues this week struggle for composure as they broadcast live reports on the most heart-wrenching aspects of the story. We have spent days trying to understand, to the extent we can, what turned a bright, and even gifted, young man into an alleged killing machine capable of holding his finger on the trigger as his gun spit bullets not only at his apparent intended target, but at total strangers in their 70s, and even a 9-year-old girl.

‘That’s not him’
One of Loughner’s pals from middle school, Lela Chavez, told us Loughner was just another sweet shy kid who loved music as she did … but that he was the one with the gift.

“He played the sax, but he read music better than we did, and could pick up any other instrument and within a few days be playing it. And playing it well!” She pointed to a photo on the cover of a CD she and Loughner and another friend had made back then. “He was a sweet kid. Genuine, funny … he would make jokes. He wasn't a loner. He wasn't a weird outcast that everyone keeps painting him to be.” Then she mentioned the infamous photo of Loughner taken after his booking.

“That’s not the Jared I knew,” she said, shuddering reflexively. “That’s not him.”

It was and it is, of course, and that’s the nexus of stories like this one: that people change. And that at its extreme end, the range of possible change reaches the kind of dissembling described by so many of those who encountered Loughner in the past year or who described themselves as his once-close friends.

At this time last year, Loughner was weird, but OK weird, Zane Gutierrez said.

“Actually, we were kind of nerds,” Gutierrez said, “a small group of us. We’d sit around and have arguments on whether Darth Vader was really the major antagonist in all three Star Wars movies … And, you know, we’d hang out and play 'Dragonball Z' and 'Magic the Gathering' … and talk about the Golden Ratio and have debates on string theory, and stuff like that…”

And then one day, in the first week of March, Gutierrez says, Loughner cut all his friends loose. “Texted us … said he didn’t want to see us anymore, or hear from us, or talk to us …”

A stark change
From there, the story’s been exhaustively reported. He went back to Pima Community College, where he was so disruptive — shouting nonsense, insulting classmates and teachers and convincing some he was a physical threat — that campus police had to intervene seven times before he was finally expelled for good.

But he’d never threatened anyone specifically, and the school followed the strict protocols refined in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre: protecting the college community, but also protecting the rights of the individual until, and unless, he is judged to be an imminent danger to himself or others.

School officials had met with Loughner’s mother once and with both parents for an hour the night they delivered the letter detailing Jared’s “immediate suspension,” including a warning that he would be arrested for trespass should he show up again on campus.

Loughner bought his gun, legally, and the extra capacity 30-round clips. Then he waited for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ next “Congress on Your Corner” event scheduled for Jan. 8.

Defines ‘inexplicable’
What’s likely to change? Maybe the same things that have changed in the aftermath of Virginia Tech, or Columbine before that. Meaning, not much.

In Tucson this weekend, the “Crossroads of the West” gun show will go on as scheduled at the Pima County Fairgrounds.

“Gun sales have been up … since last Saturday,” said Lois Chedsey of the Arizona Arms Association.

And what about Jared Lee Loughner … and the next Jared Lee Loughner?

Lana Schwark shook her head. “It’s the definition,” she said, “of the word ‘inexplicable.’”