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Aaron Sharockman
By Aaron Sharockman January 10, 2011

Arizona shooting prompts questions about civility in politics, with a focus on Florida

The tragic shooting of Democratic Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Jan. 8, 2011, at a Tucson constituent event is prompting some elected officials, members of the media and everyday citizens to re-evaluate whether American politics has become too filled with vitriol, anger and hate-filled speech.

While the motives of the gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, remain unclear, many have used the shooting to push for restoring civility to the political process.

Yet others already have engaged in a game of subtle finger pointing.

Some liberals have blamed overheated Tea Party rhetoric for contributing to today's political climate. Conservatives, meanwhile, have noted that some Democrats are no better, and that Loughner was disturbed beyond the bounds of either political party. Others also have singled out the media for covering the extremes of the political debate. Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik lectured the media at a Jan. 8 news conference, saying that trying "to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with."

On NBC's Meet the Press on Jan. 9, 2011, five members of the U.S. House talked about the shooting, the political climate and the security of members of Congress.

The panel included Republican Trent Franks of Arizona, Democrat Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona, Democrat Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, Republican Raul Labrador of Idaho and Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.

The discussion was at times emotional, and Meet the Press moderator David Gregory began to choke up when he talked about one of the shooting victims, a nine-year-old girl who was elected to her student council.

Gregory then talked about the demonization of the political opposition -- "whether it's a congressman saying, 'You lie,' from the House floor, whether it's a Democrat who literally shoots the cap and trade bill in a campaign advertisement. Or your former colleague, Alan Grayson from Florida, compared Republicans to the Taliban."

"I think we're a country that tries to solve our problems by ballots and not bullets, so a good debate is fine," answered Franks. "But when you try to go into an area of threatening debate and things of that nature, then it's very dangerous."

Wasserman Schultz picked up on Franks' "ballots and not bullets" reference when it was her turn to speak.

"Just based on what Trent just said and what, what everyone has said, I agree, it's our responsibility to make sure that we set the right example and set the tone of civility," she said. "But the shock-jocks and the political movement leaders that are out there on both sides of the aisle need to ... have some pause as well.

"I mean, the phrase that you just used, 'we use ballots, not bullets,' the actual reverse of that phrase was used in my district by someone who was almost the chief of staff to an incoming member of Congress where she said at a rally, at a Tea Party rally, 'We will use bullets if ballots don't work.' "

It's a provocative claim made by Wasserman Schultz, and we wondered if it was true.

Turns out, we've covered some of this ground.

Wasserman Schultz is referring to Joyce Kaufman, an outspoken South Florida conservative radio talk show host on WFTL-850 AM, who garnered national attention after newly elected U.S. Rep. Allen West hired her as his chief of staff a week after the Nov. 2, 2010, election. She resigned from that position days later amid controversy, and after someone sent a threat to her that stated: "I'm planning something big around the government building here in Broward County, maybe a post office, maybe even a school. ..." The threat led to a lockdown of Broward schools Nov. 10 and an FBI investigation.

At a political rally on July 3, 2010, Kaufman addressed a Broward County crowd about the need to change the culture in Washington by electing new members to the House and Senate. Her entire speech has been posted on YouTube and is about 10 minutes long. You can watch her speech here.

A few of our notes after watching the entire speech: Kaufman suggested that, without a changing of the guard in Washington, people could be banned from street corners and that "there would be kill switches on the Internet." She told the crowd to put the brakes on this "insanity" that's been happening, and to get rid of "these people in Washington who have no integrity." Kaufman said the 2010 election was the most important one in "our lifetime," and that she says "what I mean, and I mean what I say."

She then talked about the Founding Fathers and how brilliant they were.

"They gave us ballots," she said a little more than 5 minutes into her speech. "That is the first line of defense ... We send home all of these incumbents who have done nothing to represent the people. They don't come to their districts. They don't talk to us.

"And then the Founding Fathers were ever so brilliant -- and I don't care how this gets painted by the mainstream media, I don't care if this shows up on YouTube -- because I am convinced that the most important thing the Founding Fathers did to ensure me my First Amendment rights is they gave me a Second Amendment," Kaufman said, referring to the constitutional amendment that speaks of gun rights.

"And if ballots don't work, bullets will," Kaufman said, as people in the crowd reacted by clapping. One person is heard saying "Absolutely," and another says "Amen."

"I never in my life thought that the day would come where I would tell individual citizens that you are responsible for being the militia that the Founding Fathers designed," she said. "They were very specific. You need to be prepared to fight tyranny, whether it comes from outside, or whether it comes from inside."

Months after the comments, Kaufman tried to suggest they were meant as a metaphor, and told PolitiFact Florida that: "My goal certainly wasn't to incite violence. .... I was encouraging people to go out and use their vote." PolitiFact Florida ruled True a claim from Kaufman that President Barack Obama said in a political context during the 2008 campaign that "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun." The line was a quote from the 1987 movie The Untouchables.

(For the record, Kaufman gave her speech at the corner of Oakland Park Boulevard and North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, which is near a shopping center in West's District 22, not Wasserman Schultz's District 20. Wasserman Schultz's district is less than 10 blocks away).

Calling for less heated political rhetoric in the wake of the shooting of an Arizona congresswoman, Wasserman Schultz noted on NBC's Meet the Press that the person hired to be chief of staff for an elected Florida congressman told people at a rally that if ballots can't enact political change, "bullets will."

Wasserman Schultz is quoting Kaufman accurately. (Kaufman said, "If ballots don't work, bullets will.")

Maybe we could all do better by leaving the war and gun language out of political discussions. As NBC News' Chuck Todd put it, "To political professionals, the use of these images has no impact; the problem is when these images are digested by those who are already a bit unstable. No one is calling for censorship, only responsibility."

We rate this statement True.

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