Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), 48, retired from Congress after she was shot in the head at point-blank range at an event in her district in 2011. Six people died and 12 others were injured. She and her husband, Mark Kelly, founded the organization Giffords to fight gun violence and support pro-gun-control candidates for office.
Even before the shooting at your Congress on Your Corner event, you raised concerns about the deterioration of political discourse and its ramifications. I remember an ad by Sarah Palin’s group that had your congressional seat, among others, depicted in the crosshairs of a rifle. You’ve been criticized for pulling no punches in political ads against pro-gun candidates yourself — how do you reconcile that toughness with the need for civility and not fanning divisions?
It’s possible to be both tough and civil. You can stand up for what you believe in while recognizing that in order to make change happen, we ultimately need to bring people together. There is a tradition in Arizona of leaders not backing down from a fight. I think of my friend, former senator John McCain. He didn’t mince words. Yet he also sought to hear people out.
We can have disagreements about what exact laws should be passed. But when Congress refuses to even debate policy solutions, much less take any meaningful action, then it’s time for a change. After the school shooting in Santa Fe [last] year, I remember hearing a student comment that she wasn’t surprised a shooting happened at her school. She expected one would happen eventually. What a horrifying statement. We’ve all got to ask ourselves: Is that really the kind of country we want to live in? I’ve always believed when you see something wrong, you stand up and speak up. I’m raising my voice, and I’m inspired by the others who have joined me.
Do you think the shooting has made you more fearful, or less?
It’s made me less fearful about things in my own life. When you are in the [traumatic] position I was in, a lot of the smaller things scare you less. But I’m fearful of some broader trends in society, like the polarization of our politics, the rise of hate — and how gun violence can make those things worse. This country needs unified leadership behind our values of tolerance, democracy and mutual respect — and of course we need to stop gun violence.
Mark and I had begun talking about if and how we could get involved in helping reduce gun violence. That discussion actually started during a vacation we took in July 2012. The day before we got on the plane, the news was dominated by a gunman opening fire in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 and injuring 58 others. It was absolutely horrifying. Mark and I talked about putting out a statement — but didn't think that was nearly enough. In my career, I've always sought to find the common ground. So, on that plane, while we thought about Aurora, both of us realized that more needed to be done to bridge the divide between gun owners, like us, and the majority of Americans who simply want their communities to be safe.
Those conversations continued. But it was when 20 first-graders were murdered in their classrooms at Sandy Hook that we decided to launch our fight. The country was outraged. We were outraged. We were also ready. We wanted to chip away at the conventional wisdom that nothing could be done about this country's gun violence crisis.
What do you find that people tend to misunderstand about you?
Not many people realize that my recovery is still a struggle. Speaking is still hard for me. My eyesight isn’t great, and despite hours and hours of physical therapy, my right arm and right leg remain mostly paralyzed. But instead of focusing on the things that I cannot do, I’ve tried to focus on the things that I can do and live without limits.
Advice to live by?
There is a time to compromise and a time to be tough. In Congress, I made sure all the legislation I introduced was bipartisan. I knew we — in Congress and in our country — were at our best when we worked to find common ground. But there were also times that called for courage. The fight against gun violence requires compromise at times, but we must also recognize that when it comes to protecting the lives of our kids and doing everything in our power to stop the carnage, there is no other side.
What inspires you when things look dark?
Mark has been an inspiration to me. Since the shooting he’s never wavered. I also draw inspiration and courage from those that have been down hard roads themselves. Leaders like John Lewis. I’ve learned a lot from him, and always remember something he once said: “We may not have chosen the time, but the time has chosen us.”
These can be hard times. Even scary times. But I remain hopeful because of the strength I’ve seen from our children. They have pointed out that America has failed to keep them safe and are following in the footsteps of our country’s heroes who, at critical moments in our history, have stood up and said, “Enough. It’s time for change.”
This interview has been edited and condensed. To accommodate the subject’s communication difficulty as a result of injuries sustained in the shooting, the interview was conducted by email over several hours. Follow KK Ottesen on Twitter: @kkOttesen.