For Once, Washington Gets it Right

Anyone walking around Capitol Hill this week would have been struck by the stillness and quiet -- and especially by how vividly this contrasted with the acrimony swirling online, on cable news, and on talk radio over who should bear the blame for last weekend's massacre in Tucson that gravely wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others. Critics like to claim that Washington is the catalyst for this sort of rage. But right now, they'd be hard-pressed to turn up much evidence.

The moment he got word of the shooting, House Speaker John Boehner made the judicious decision to suspend the legislative calendar and devote the week to honoring Giffords and her fellow victims. Beyond expressions of condolence, the congressional leaders in both parties have mostly maintained a dignified silence. What activity can be found is mainly beneath the rotunda in the Cannon House Office Building, where hushed crowds have lined up to add their signatures and good wishes to books being prepared for the victims.

Needless to say, this is an inversion of the usual state of affairs, where lawmakers say outlandish things and everyone else looks sensible and well-grounded by comparison. When was the last time anybody looked to Washington and thought, "Too bad more people don't behave that way''?

This spirit of reasonableness extends to much of the legislation being prepared by members of both parties in response to the shooting. Democratic Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York, whose husband was gunned down on a Long Island commuter train, will introduce a bill to restrict sales of high-capacity ammunition clips like those used by Jared Lee Loughner and Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people in a Virginia Tech shooting spree in 2007. Republican Representative Peter King of New York wants to make it illegal to carry a gun within 1,000 feet of a federal official, to protect them and the constituents they interact with.

Another Republican representative, Dan Burton of Indiana, would like to seal off the House gallery in bulletproof Plexiglass -- which, granted, sounds a bit odd, but probably less so to someone whose colleague was just targeted for assassination. The point is that even the truly bad ideas, like Democratic Representative Bob Brady's plan to outlaw hate speech, at least seem to spring from good intentions.

It's a sign of the public's low regard for our political leaders that none of these measures, nor anything resembling them, has generated much interest. Even more so that their example of restraint has barely registered, much less been emulated by others. Whether Americans have lost faith in Congress or simply become inured to tragedy, they no longer turn to Washington in times of crisis.

That may help to explain why the response in Arizona and elsewhere has been so different. Stricter gun laws probably were never a real possibility. As Charlie Cook, the veteran political handicapper, pointed out this week, gun laws have replaced Social Security as the third rail of American politics. Loosening, rather than tightening, those laws is the likelier course of action. And already a state representative in Arizona is pushing to let community college professors carry concealed weapons on campus, a direct response to one of Loughner's professors saying that he had been afraid that his troubled student might have a gun.

Meanwhile, gun dealers report soaring sales, driven partly by the fear that lawmakers really will restrict gun owners. A similar pattern, with the same rationale, was observed after President Obama was elected, although those worries turned out to be unjustified.

The president's speech in Tucson may yet summon a period of national unity, temper partisan passions, and redirect everyone's focus to where it belongs, on the victims and heroes of the tragedy.

But the rush to define the shooting in favorable political terms, and the ratcheting up of that process in the few days past, suggests that's not very likely to happen, and the speech might inflame partisan passions even further.

That's a distressing prospect, since Congress will resume its schedule as soon as next week. When it does, Boehner will begin the process of trying to repeal the health care law that was the proximate cause of so much anger in national politics. Washington's current mood of restraint is the best in which to conduct such a highly charged debate. We'll find out soon whether it can endure.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.