Opinion How Gabby Giffords found her voice again

Former congresswoman and gun-violence survivor Gabby Giffords arrives before speaking at a Gun Violence Memorial installation on the National Mall on June 7. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Setbacks.

Two syllables. A simple word to say for most — but not for Gabby Giffords, who was dealt a catastrophic setback on Jan. 8, 2011, by a troubled young man with a 9mm Glock semiautomatic pistol.

Setbacks.

The word lurks in the text of her latest speech like a tripwire.

Setbacks.

Her tongue struggles to navigate the hairpin curve between T and B.

Setbacks.

Giffords and Tucson speech-language pathologist Fabi Hirsch wrestled a long time with that word. Hirsch at one point proposed ditching it for another, but Giffords refused and dug in.

“We ended up working on it intensively in isolation and then incorporating it back into the speech. Now, she produces it beautifully,” Hirsch says. “I don’t think people have any idea just how painstaking the process is and how determined Gabby is.”

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Words used to tumble effortlessly from Giffords. President of her family’s tire business at age 26, she doubled as its fast-talking TV pitchwoman, exhorting customers to “race into El Campo Service Center today, before this offer is gone.” A registered Republican who switched parties as she entered politics in 2000, Giffords was elected to the Arizona House at 30, the state Senate at 32. Three years later, in 2006, she flipped a U.S. House district that had been in GOP hands for more than two decades.

Giffords defied red-blue labels. She was liberal on abortion and health care but tough on border security, and she signed a brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns. She was a motorcycle-riding cowgirl married to an astronaut. But her superpower was her charisma. Her aides liked to say that no one who met her was immune to being “Gabbified.”

The congresswoman was three days into her third term on that Saturday morning in January 2011, meeting constituents over a card table at one of her regular “Congress on Your Corner” sessions. The event had just gotten underway, outside a Safeway grocery store, when a 22-year-old gunman, whose name need not be mentioned here, approached and shot her point-blank in the left side of her forehead. The bullet sliced through the frontal lobe of her brain, where expressive language is centered, and exited the back of her skull. He then turned on the crowd and hit 18 more people, killing six, including Giffords’s community outreach director, Gabriel Zimmerman; U.S. District Court Chief Judge John Roll; and Christina-Taylor Green, a bright third-grader who had tagged along with a neighbor to meet the congresswoman.

During a recent Zoom interview with me, Giffords spoke haltingly, in sentence fragments, as she described that day and its horrors: “A Safeway store. Shooting. Six people died.”

Giffords herself wasn’t expected to survive, much less go on to help lead a movement working to toughen American gun laws. How she did it is the subject of a new documentary, “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” set for release Friday in 300 theaters across the country. On July 7, she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Biden.

Giffords’s story is worth revisiting not only because of the deadly wave of mass shootings this summer, but also because of our worrisome trend toward political violence, which crested with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters intent on preventing Congress from counting electoral college ballots. The House select committee investigating the coup attempt has produced considerable evidence that some activists who participated in the violent attack had targeted members of Congress before breaching the Capitol building.

Giffords was targeted a decade earlier purely because she, too, was doing a job assigned to her by the Constitution. She was serving and representing her constituents.

At the time, her district was a center of tea party protests over health care, immigration, Wall Street bailouts and pretty much anything associated with President Barack Obama. Her Tucson office had been vandalized, and police had removed a protester from one of her events when a pistol fell out of his holster and bounced on the ground. Giffords had felt the need to let it be known that she owned a handgun.

In the new film about Giffords, her husband, Mark Kelly — a former astronaut and now a Democratic U.S. senator from Arizona facing reelection this fall — notes: “She was there with me for three of my spaceflights. We would talk about the odds. It turned out she had the risky job.”

Before the shooting rampage that changed everything, Giffords and Kelly were at an auspicious point in their lives, when it still seemed possible to make plans and then assume the stars would always align for them. In just months, Kelly was to command the final mission of NASA’s space shuttle Endeavour; Giffords, meanwhile, had scheduled a meeting with her political team to begin plotting a run for the U.S. Senate seat then held by Republican Jon Kyl, who was thinking of retiring. But first things first for the congresswoman, who was nearing her 41st birthday: Giffords had an appointment for an initial in vitro fertilization procedure at Bethesda Naval Medical Center. It was to have taken place on Jan. 10, two days after the shooting.

“Yeah, talk about a couple of doors being slammed on you pretty hard,” Kelly told me.

He was in Houston when a Giffords aide phoned to tell him of the shooting, and he quickly arranged for a friend to fly him to her. In the plane, which had a television, Kelly saw news flashes that said his wife was dead but soon got a call that she was not. When he got to the hospital, she was in a coma, her bandaged head grotesque and nearly unrecognizable.

It would be close to a month before Kelly would see a glimmer of the old Gabby again, when — still barely conscious — her fingers began fiddling with the wedding ring on his hand, something she used to do often when they were idling together in a restaurant.

Giffords was going to live, but it was still far from certain whether she would speak or walk again. She would be partially blind and unable to use her right arm.

Two weeks after the shooting, she was helicoptered to TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston to begin rehabilitation. It was around then that Kelly enlisted a pal to buy and set up a video camera, a tripod and “a bunch of memory.”

“I knew she wouldn’t remember a lot of it, especially in the beginning. I knew it was going to take a while. I figured at some point, she’d want to go back and take a look and see what the experience was like,” he said. “I instructed the nurses who were there to, whenever she’s doing stuff, just hit record. Leave it. Let it go.”

That footage forms the painful core of the new documentary. Twenty days after the shooting, it shows Giffords at her first speech therapy session unable to summon the breath to move a Kleenex dangled in front of her face. At 36 days, she struggles with what speech pathologists call “perseveration” — the repetitive use of words by a patient when cognition is impaired. Random words — in Giffords’s case, “chicken, chicken, chicken” — keep coming out, instead of what she intends to say. The following day, her frustration brings her to sobs.

But, as is not unheard of in people facing her type of deficits, music became a lifeline for Giffords. She had always loved to sing, played the French horn and performed in musical theater. Music became a central tool in her therapy. She could warble “My name is Gab-by” as a tune before she could say it; at 38 days after the shooting, she was managing a bubbly, off-key version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

When I asked during our interview whether indomitable optimism had always been part of her character, Giffords lit up and burst out with a robust, “Annie”-esque “The sun will come out tomorrow ...”

Partly as a result, Kelly posted a set of rules outside her hospital room for visitors: Don’t cry; be positive; don’t assume she doesn’t understand what you’re talking about.

In the film, she describes how her inability to express her thoughts — a condition known as aphasia — feels from the inside. “No bueno,” she says. “Aphasia really sucks. The words are there in my brain. I just can’t get them out. I love to talk. I’m Gabby, and I’m so quiet now.”

The congresswoman for the 8th Congressional District of Arizona returned to the House floor on Aug. 1, 2011, to vote in favor of a debt-ceiling increase. The place erupted in cheers, and colleagues descended on her with hugs.

Just under six months later, Giffords stood in the well of the chamber, as her friend Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) tearfully read a resignation letter that Giffords was not up to delivering aloud herself: “I have more work to do on my recovery before I can again serve in elected office. This past year, my colleagues and staff have worked to make sure my constituents were represented in Congress. But if I can’t return, my district deserves to elect a U.S. representative who can give 100 percent to the job now.”

By then, Kelly had retired from NASA and the Navy. He had made his final spaceflight four months after Giffords was shot.

Their next mission did not come into focus until Dec. 14, 2012, the day a 20-year-old gunman shot and killed 26 people, including 20 six- and seven-year-olds, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Giffords told me over email. “December 2012 was when I knew I couldn’t stand on the sidelines any longer. Even though I wasn’t able to speak more than a few words at a time, still I knew I had to use my voice to fight for change. That day, I said, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”

“After each shooting that made national news, Americans would talk about how we needed change, how this was the moment for it,” she added. “These people were right, every single time, but still nothing changed at the federal level.”

Less than a month later, she and Kelly launched the organization that would become known simply as “Giffords.” Joining with other groups, it has been part of an effort that has helped pass more than 460 gun-safety laws in 48 states and elect upwards of 350 winning candidates at every level of government. Its attorneys have filed more than 75 briefs defending gun-safety laws in the courts. And it put Giffords herself back in the fight.

From the beginning, Kelly explained, the new organization had “an all-of-the-above approach. What I mean by that is that this is not only a federal issue, this is also a state issue, and you can effect meaningful change by engaging with legislatures and advocates and folks in a lot of different states.”

In 2019, Kelly announced that he would run to fill the Arizona Senate seat vacated after Sen. John McCain (R) died. He won that 2020 race and is running again this year to keep the seat. He will face the winner of a closely contested Aug. 2 Republican primary. Kelly is one of the top GOP targets in what is expected to be a bumper year for Republicans.

Giffords and Kelly still own guns. How many? “More than a handful, probably less than a dozen,” he said.

Gabby Giffords: What Jan. 6 and the attack on my life have in common

But while they both knew how to responsibly handle these weapons, they had a lot to learn about the specifics of how gun laws work — and don’t work. It was a revelation. “We make it really easy for criminals and domestic abusers and people who are dangerously mentally ill to get access to guns like no other country on the planet,” he said. “In a lot of states, you can walk out of a state prison after serving 20 years for a felony and walk down to the local gun show, and with cash, go buy an AR-15. That doesn’t make sense to most Americans. Actually, I would say that most Americans don’t know that.”

Nor do most outside the gun rights movement make the issue a top priority when they vote, despite the fact that polls show that solid majorities favor stricter firearms laws. “The thing that has always been lacking on the gun issue is intensity,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), a close friend of Giffords from their time together in the House. “She pushes people to do what they should do.”

Giffords believes the May shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., marked a turning point and — finally — made modest progress possible on the federal level. “The bill that President Biden signed on the one-month anniversary of Uvalde is going to save lives," she explained by email. "It shows the impact of our movement — it shows we can enact solutions to gun violence. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act doesn’t do everything, but it’s a critical first step.”

And what is the next step? When I asked Giffords this on Zoom, she had no trouble summoning the words: “Background checks.” Her organization identifies the loopholes and enforcement failures in the current background-check system as one of its most urgent priorities.

Giffords is just one of a number of gun-safety groups — among them, the Brady Campaign; Everytown for Gun Safety; Moms Demand Action; and March for Our Lives. Many have been founded and led by the survivors and the bereaved. In Uvalde, one has formed that calls itself Fierce Madres.

Other groups are bigger than Giffords. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety claims to be the nation’s largest “gun violence prevention organization.” Even combined, however, gun safety groups are still typically outspent by the other side though they have been coming closer to parity in recent political cycles and have, on occasion, poured more into lobbying and campaign contributions, according to the campaign finance website Open Secrets.

On July 6, the Giffords PAC announced it would spend $10 million on local, state and federal elections this year in states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Colorado.

Giffords herself, meantime, soldiers on, a visible survivor of rising political violence who has credibility as a counterweight to the gun lobby. “Gabby was a gun owner,” says Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who led the fight last month to pass the first federal gun restrictions in decades. “Gabby was a member of Congress who didn’t have an F rating from the National Rifle Association, who would sometimes take the side of Second Amendment groups. And so Gabby is very well positioned to run an organization like this because she had the ability to reach out to non-gun owners and gun owners.”

“And then, obviously, Gabby’s story is heroic,” he added. “There are a lot of people who joined the movement because they were inspired by Gabby Giffords.”

Hard as it is for her, she speaks in public about gun safety often, rides her bike every day and is hoping to complete a 40-mile ride this fall. One of the final scenes of the documentary shows her standing before 40,000 white flowers that her organization placed on the National Mall, marking the annual number of gun deaths in the United States.

“Words once came easily. Today, I struggle to speak. But I’ve not lost my voice,” she said. “America needs all of us to speak out — even when you have to fight to find the words.”

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