It was wild on the House floor that day. Everyone was standing, necks craning to see the source of the chaos through whoops, hollers, whistles and a constant, rolling applause. Everyone — Republicans and Democrats.
It was a chilling moment in an America where political rancor was escalating but seemed to be a bloodless war of words until Giffords was shot. Eighteen other people were hit by bullets in front of the Safeway in Tucson that day — six of them fatally.
Giffords united the nation when she returned to the Capitol, then reminded us how lasting and devastating a single bullet can be when she retired from Congress in January 2012.
She wasn’t quiet for long.
In the years after she was shot, we adopted a bloody, national narrative of deadly mass shootings that every American can recite — Newtown, Parkland, Aurora, Charleston, Orlando, Fort Hood, Pittsburg, Navy Yard, San Bernardino, Virginia Beach.
So she founded an organization — Giffords — to tackle that confusing, complex, confounding, lethal American tradition of gun violence.
I followed up with Giffords as the 10-year anniversary of her return to Congress approached to see where she thinks gun violence legislation in America stands in the shadow of the pandemic.
Because of the aphasia caused by the gunshot, it’s difficult for her to express herself over the phone, so we communicated by email. Here is the conversation, edited lightly for brevity:
Q: How hopeful were you on that day in August, when you returned? Did you know, deep inside, that you'd be retiring soon?
A: I felt so much hope on that day: Hope that our nation would come together. Hope that my colleagues would do more to work across the aisle. Hope that America would emerge from the financial crisis stronger than ever.
I still hold onto the hope I felt that day. I wasn’t thinking about my future in Congress; I was focused on how much I wanted to regain my ability to walk and talk. These were two gifts I took for granted and certainly never will again.
Q: Public service is an especially ugly business these days. Why go back into public life?
A: Public service is something I could never abandon. For the first two years after I was shot, I was primarily focused on my recovery. But after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, I decided to go all-in on the fight to end gun violence.
I knew taking on the gun lobby would be hard — I saw firsthand how aggressively they attacked members of Congress who failed to support their extremist views. Since then, my organization and the entire gun violence prevention movement has made so much progress while the NRA has fallen deeper and deeper into disarray. We are organized and well-funded, with a passionate and rapidly growing base. Progress takes time, but when you’re fighting to save lives from gun violence, quitting is never an option.
Q: The attack on you 10 years ago underscored the political rancor of that time. Have our divisions deepened since then?
A: Unfortunately, it’s clear that our country is more divided than it was 10 years ago, more divided than it’s been in decades. The Capitol insurrection on January 6th served as a devastating example of the depth of these divisions. I feared for my husband’s [Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.)] safety on that day, just as he feared for mine when I was shot 10 years ago.
We need to find a way back to cooperation and collaboration rather than moving even further into partisanship and division. We all want our families and children to be safe, but may have different ideas on how to achieve that future. My organization, Giffords, tries to reach across the aisle and find common ground with people of all political backgrounds.
Q: I love that you recently spent a day picking up trash outside the Virginia headquarters of the National Rifle Association. Did you find anything interesting? Did the NRA thank you for cleaning up?
A: I went with members of my team to pick up trash there recently because we adopted that stretch of highway to send a message: we’ll never stop working to clean up the NRA’s mess. It’s service; it’s also one of my responses to the gun lobby’s extremism, misinformation, and flat-out lies. And no, I haven’t gotten a thank you from the NRA.
Q: Why is gun violence escalating during the pandemic?
A: While there are many causes and types of gun violence and no one law will prevent every shooting, Congress’s failure to pass common-sense gun safety laws like universal background checks is certainly a major factor.
We must elect leaders who support gun safety and vote out those who do not. If the people in elected office right now continue to listen to the gun lobby instead of their constituents, they shouldn’t be in office. We must also pass critical police reforms like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and adequately fund lifesaving community violence intervention programs.
Q: Do you still own a gun?
A: Yes. My organization actually has a national coalition of responsible gun owners who advocate for common-sense measures like universal background checks. We recently ran a series on our blog called “The NRA Doesn’t Speak for Me,” highlighting some of these voices.
Q: Your recovery is a long process that involves biking, yoga, playing music, constant therapy. It reminds me of how complicated it will be for our nation to curb gun violence.
A: I think that’s absolutely the right way to look at it. When it comes to social movements, so often progress happens in fits and starts, rather than in a straight line. When I need a boost of inspiration, I think of the many wonderful, courageous people I’ve met in this movement: the people who have lost a father or daughter or best friend to gun violence but keep fighting, day in and day out, or the people who, like me, have been shot but persist despite the physical and emotional scars they have to contend with every day. They aren’t going anywhere, and neither am I.
Q: You're often photographed wearing a striking, dark-silver brooch. Does it have a story?
A: Tucson legend Cele Peterson gave it to me, and I was immediately smitten — and then I lost it and was so disappointed.
A little while later, Mark found a very similar brooch while traveling and surprised me with it. Now I wear it almost every day. It reminds me of a desert flower in my home of Tucson, and it also reminds me that hope can be found in unexpected places.
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