One of the country's leading gun-control groups changed its name Tuesday from Americans for Responsible Solutions to Giffords, the name of the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head in 2011 and founded the group two years later after 20 Connecticut first-graders were killed.
Gun-control advocates said the name change is part of a larger effort to reframe the gun debate in the wake of the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas. By focusing on former Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as a symbol of “courage,” they are hoping to draw in more people to fight for stronger firearms laws.
“It will be a long, hard haul, but I’m optimistic,” Giffords said in an interview with her husband, Mark Kelly, from their home in Tucson.
“It is about the courage of single individuals, but also the courage of members of Congress and state legislators to stand up to the gun lobby and focus on this like they never have before,” said Kelly, a former astronaut and co-founder of the group. “If we don’t have the courage to talk about this . . . we’re going to have another Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, another shooting like we saw in Vegas.”
Kelly traveled to Las Vegas last week and met with the families of two women with injuries similar to those suffered by his wife. “These two young women have serious traumatic brain injuries and a long road ahead of them,” Kelly said. “And I’ve been there before. Their lives have been completely changed forever. They are going through something very similar to what Gabby and I went through. I wanted to let them know to count on me if they need any advice. It’s a sad, sad situation.”
Kelly and Giffords, both gun owners, released a video Tuesday that they made with former president Barack Obama, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a former U.S. Army general who commanded the Joint Special Operations Command for five years.
"People say we can never take the guns out of society completely," McChrystal says on the video. "Well, I don't think many people are calling for that. I think what we're calling for is the kinds of things that bring sanity back."
After every mass shooting, gun-control groups have urged lawmakers to pass stronger background checks and tighten other gun laws. Gun rights advocates resist, nothing happens in Congress and the same pattern repeats itself after the next event.
Kelly and Giffords, both gun owners, said that cycle can be broken, if only incrementally at first. They pointed out that after the Las Vegas shooting, members of Congress, including Republicans, called for legislation to restrict or prohibit “bump stocks.” Stephen Paddock, firing from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, had used bump stocks to accelerate the gunfire from his rifles, killing 58 people and injuring more than 500 attending a music festival on the Strip below.
“To me, that is counter to the argument that a lot of them make all the time,” Kelly said. “Their argument often is, ‘Legislation doesn’t matter because criminals do not follow the law.’ They at least left the door open for Congress to act on regulating a device that turns a semiautomatic weapon into a fully automatic weapon.”
Four days after the shooting, the National Rifle Association unexpectedly joined the effort, releasing a statement saying, “The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semiautomatic rifles to function like fully automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”
The bump-stock issue, however, is already at a standstill. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and many other House Republicans last week backed away from congressional action to ban the devices, saying the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) should regulate or ban bump stocks by decree.
But, in a letter to Congress, current and former ATF agents said it is Congress that should take action. They said that under the law, attaching the device to a gun “does not make it a machine gun,” so ATF cannot regulate it.
"The law is very clear, and it does not currently allow ATF to regulate such accessories," Michael R. Bouchard, former ATF assistant director and now president of the ATF Association, wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post.
Kelly and Giffords have an uphill battle. The NRA spent more than $30 million supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. In recent months, the Trump administration has been easing gun regulations. It blocked, for example, the Social Security Administration from reporting mentally impaired recipients to a national background-check database, reversing an Obama administration action.
The NRA declined to comment on the rebranding of the Giffords group.
Even before the Las Vegas shooting, the Giffords group had fought against legislation in Congress to make it easier to buy gun silencers and to carry concealed weapons across state lines. Giffords has raised about $15 million a year and traveled to dozens of states, playing a role in the passage of many of the 210 new gun laws enacted in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Her group has also merged with California's Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Arkadi Gerney, an advocate for stronger gun laws who worked for then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Center for American Progress, said it is fitting to put Giffords and her story at the center of the fight against the gun lobby.
"There's been a growing powerful movement to overcome the NRA," Gerney said. "It's two steps forward and one step backward. But, there's a lot of determination. Gabby Giffords is both a symbol and actuality of that courage and determination."