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Politics of an Arizona Crime Scene: Guns and Borders

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Border security and illegal immigration are dominant issues in Arizona, where the state’s politics are now the subject of national interest in light of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

One GOP consultant and longtime state resident noted that while immigration received most of the national press out of Arizona last year, the economy remained the top issue in campaigns heading into the midterm elections.

"Most people here, they're just trying to get their kids to school on time, pay their mortgage," he said. "There was some immigration, but the economy was the big one."

But immigration is not a stand-alone issue in the Southwest. Johnson said because of Arizona's long border with Mexico, all issue debates are invariably connected to a conversation about immigration.

"It really does frame a lot of other issues," she said. "The immigration debate filters into the role of other things like the economy, education and health care. As a border state, it affects us on many levels."

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) said border violence caused by illegal immigrants led the state to take the step of increasing enforcement. It was also often cited by Sen. John McCain (R) during his re-election race last year, including in a TV ad in which he called for increased National Guard troops and to "complete the danged fence."

Another issue that typifies Arizona's independent political nature is the state's relatively relaxed gun restrictions, which were loosened further last year. Just nine months ago, Arizona became the third state to allow the carrying of a concealed weapon without a permit.

The GOP consultant said the state's "lax and permissive" gun laws had not previously led to further safety measures at political events. He noted that the October debate between Giffords and her Republican opponent on the Tucson campus of the University of Arizona had little if any security, and he called security at the state Capitol in Phoenix "negligible."

During the angry protests at health care events, Giffords aides told the Arizona Daily Star they were compelled for the first time to notify law enforcement before her town halls.

During one 2009 Giffords event in Douglas, Ariz., a man's gun fell out of his holster as he sat down. It did not fire, but the incident alarmed local activists in part because at least two people had carried assault rifles outside one of President Barack Obama's events in Phoenix.

U.S. District Judge John Roll, among those slain in Tucson, had been the target of death threats after ruling that a lawsuit by illegal immigrants against an Arizona rancher could go forward in 2009. The Arizona Republic reported that the judge received more than 200 phone calls after talk radio hosts criticized his ruling, prompting authorities to give Roll's family protection.

While immigration led to a deep political fight in the state and country last year, the bipartisan Congressional delegation worked across the aisle on border issues.

"On issues like immigration there is a lot of cooperation," Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "Particularly with Gabby Giffords, she has a district where you have to have that cooperation. We have delegation meetings frequently, and it's an environment where we work together."

Giffords withstood a tough challenge from a tea-party-backed Republican in 2010, even as the GOP picked up 63 Democratic seats nationwide, including two from the Phoenix area.

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