Rupert Cornwell: A pitch-perfect response restores Obama's stature

The aftermath of Tucson showed the President at his best – while his rival appeared combative and petty

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Perhaps the saddest thing about last weekend's slaughter in Tucson is that, in statistical terms, it was pretty routine as US shooting sprees go. Six people died, the same number as in the attack at an Amish school in Pennsylvania in October 2006, when a milk truck driver killed five little girls before turning his gun on himself.

That tragedy is remembered, like the killing of 12 soldiers at the Fort Hood army base in November 2009, mainly because of the particular communities that fell victim. But what about the massacre of nine people at a Nebraska supermarket in December 2007? Or the eight who died at the hands of an angry former employee at a Connecticut beer distributor last August? Or the seven students gunned down at a Minnesota high school in 2005, or the six who were killed at an Illinois university campus in February 2008?

Each of these rampages was as deadly or deadlier than last Saturday's – though modest in comparison with Virginia Tech in April 2007, when 32 people were mown down by a deranged student. But today they are virtually forgotten outside the local communities that must live with their aftermath.

We will, however, remember Tucson. What lifts this atrocity out of the routine is that one intended victim was an Arizona congresswoman, raising the spectre of political assassination that forever haunts America. Miraculously, Gabrielle Giffords seems likely to survive – but the attack has provoked a ferocious debate over whether Jared Loughner, the alleged perpetrator, had taken the overheated hit-list rhetoric of the right at face value when he went after her.

Not only had the Democrat congresswoman been shown as a target on the website of Sarah Palin. She had even publicly warned that the use of such violent imagery by the best-known Republican politician in the land could have "consequences".

Fortunately, there seems to have been no chain of cause and effect, leading from Palin to the gunman to Giffords. Loughner seems to have been just another mentally disturbed individual who should never have been allowed near a gun. Nonetheless, his rampage will not be forgotten. The question is: will it have consequences?

Not, one may safely predict, for America's absurdly lax gun laws. The gun lobby is more powerful than ever – so much so that the National Rifle Association has not even bothered to recite its usual mantra of "guns don't kill people, people do". In a brief message on its website, it simply extends condolences to the victims of this "senseless tragedy" and "joins the rest of the country in praying for the quick recovery of those injured".

Peter King, a New York congressman who wants to make it illegal to carry a gun within 1,000ft of a member of Congress, says his office has been receiving "100 calls an hour" from opponents of his proposal.

His colleague Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was one of six killed in the 1993 Long Island Railroad Massacre, is pushing similarly limited legislation that would ban extended magazines, such as the 33-bullet clip Loughner attached to his Glock pistol. But the measure may not even be debated. So disheartened are gun control advocates these days that they refer to "gun safety" rather than "gun control".

Others insist that Tucson proves America must make a greater effort to deal with the mentally unstable in its midst. In fact, Arizona had relatively strict laws in this regard, and little good they did. No, what distinguished this crisis was its political aspect. Its consequences, if any, will be political.

The most probable, and one that is already discernible, is a change in public perceptions of the President. The speech at the service for the victims was delivered by the Barack Obama we were promised in his wondrous 2008 campaign, the unifying leader standing above the partisan fray – but who seemed to stoke that fray during his first two years in office.

Even conservative commentators agreed the President was pitch-perfect. The similarities between Obama now and Bill Clinton in the dark months after the 1994 midterm defeat of his Democratic party have been much remarked on. Clinton truly acquired presidential stature when he led the country through the trauma of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and the following year cruised to re-election. The same may happen with Obama; his approval ratings have already jumped since the Tucson shootings.

In his speech, the President singled out no one for blame, telling both left and right not to play politics with the tragedy. And there may be a softening of the debate in the next few weeks. But, one suspects, not for long. Elections are fast approaching. Which, inevitably, brings me to Sarah Palin.

She has not had, shall we say, a good Tucson. It is now generally accepted that Loughner was not inspired by Palin. But a deeper question remains. The trappings of her online video reaction to the shootings were deliberately presidential. But the style wasn't. She was combative and petty. She may have delighted her followers, but surely no one else. I have always been doubtful she would run in 2012. Those doubts are stronger now than ever.

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