A decade ago on Aug. 1, Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returned to Congress seven months after a gunman shot her and killed six people during a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson, Arizona. Giffords’ surprise appearance, to cast a vote in favor of raising the nation’s debt limit, was hailed as a unifying, bipartisan moment at the time.
Giffords, whose husband Mark Kelly now serves as a U.S. senator representing Arizona, would later resign from Congress and start an eponymous organization dedicated to combating gun violence. She recently spoke with HuffPost via email about how she now sees bipartisan moments like this as few and far between.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
You returned to Congress a decade ago when many people thought you never would. And even since leaving Congress, you’ve stayed involved in public policy and advocacy. Why have you been determined to stay involved?
Public service has always motivated me. I had to return for that vote on the House floor 10 years ago because I didn’t want to let my colleagues and my constituents down. Today, the public service I’m engaged in takes a different form ― I may no longer be in elected office, but my desire to serve is as strong as ever. I founded my organization, Giffords, after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012. Since then, I’ve fought to make progress both in my own recovery and in the fight against our country’s gun violence epidemic.
How does your life today compare to where you thought you would be now 10 years ago?
After I was shot, so many things that I had taken for granted before ― like speaking and walking ― were suddenly incredibly hard. Today, many of these things are still difficult, but thanks to my care team and people like my speech therapist, Fabi, I’ve made so much progress. And thanks to the incredible people who work at Giffords and across the gun safety movement, we’re making progress in this fight, too, even if the path isn’t always as smooth as we’d like it to be.
As a politician, delivering speeches and talking to people was obviously a major part of what you did on a day-to-day basis. How have you had to adjust to your speech aphasia?
After I was shot, I could only say “chicken” and “what” over and over. I knew that I needed to expand my ability to actually convey the thoughts in my head. Doing so was a painstaking, deliberate process. But I was determined, and I remain determined to this day. Preparing for the speech I gave at the Democratic National Convention last summer took weeks. But my struggles to relearn how to speak have given me a newfound appreciation for raising my voice to make a difference. It’s clearer to me than ever before that words are precious, and they can have great power.
What were you thinking as you watched Jan. 6 unfold? It was almost exactly 10 years to the day of what happened to you.
I was scared. Scared for my husband, Mark, and all of his colleagues, and scared to see the country I love under attack by its own people. When I talk about how words matter, that applies in this context, too. Divisive, inflammatory rhetoric brings us further from the ideal that this nation aspires to. It puts people’s lives at risk, and as we saw on January 6th, can jeopardize our democracy itself.
This is one of the many reasons I’m thrilled that my friend Joe Biden is in the White House. President Biden is a fundamentally kind, empathetic person who has suffered tremendously and come out the other side stronger. I can’t imagine where we’d be without his leadership and the leadership of Vice President [Kamala] Harris in this moment.
On Jan. 6, you wrote to Mark on Twitter and said that you “couldn’t stop thinking about what you must have gone through 10 years ago this week.” Could you elaborate on that?
When I was shot 10 years ago, some outlets initially reported that I hadn’t survived. Tragically, six people didn’t, including 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. On January 6th, I feared for Mark’s safety while awaiting news of his whereabouts. It’s the same fear too many Americans feel after hearing of a shooting at a place where their loved one was ― it’s not something I would wish upon anyone.
Yet this scene plays out again and again in our country, at public places like supermarkets and spas that are supposed to be safe. And then there are the shootings that get far less attention, like firearm suicides and community violence. All told, we lose 100 Americans to gun violence every single day.
At the time, your return was hailed as a rare moment of bipartisanship in a rancorous Congress. Those moments of bipartisanship seem to get rarer and rarer. How do you think Congress has changed over the past decade?
Unfortunately, I do think our politics have become even more divided than they were when I was in Congress ― yet I also don’t think these divisions are inevitable. The American people want elected leaders to do the governing they were elected to do, not politicians locked in an endless stalemate. We must continue to raise our voices and demand change on the issues that are most important to us. We must continue voting and ensuring that our democratic process remains accessible to all. And above all, we must never lose hope.
What are your hopes for gun policy during the current Congress? Can universal background checks ― or any other legislation focused on preventing gun violence ― pass the Senate without reforms to the filibuster?
I remain hopeful, because the people are on our side. Policies like universal background checks, which has the support of 90% of Americans, actually unify Americans in an unprecedented fashion. Yet too many politicians remain beholden to the gun lobby, choosing to do what’s easy rather than what’s right.
At Giffords, we’re doing our part to change that, but I want to urge anyone who cares about gun safety ― anyone who has ever worried that they’ll be caught at a baseball game during an active shooter situation, or feared that their children won’t make it back from school one day ― to make their voices heard on this issue. Otherwise, the other side wins, and the violence continues.
Is there anything more the Biden administration could be doing to combat gun violence?
I’ve known Joe Biden a long time. When I returned to the House floor 10 years ago, he made a point to come see me. I’ve talked about how glad I am that he and Vice President Harris are in the White House, and that absolutely applies to gun violence prevention. When I joined President Biden in the Rose Garden in April, he announced a series of critical actions on gun safety, including nominating a strong [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] director and funding lifesaving community violence intervention programs.
More recently, his administration announced additional reforms aimed at preventing firearm trafficking and using intervention strategies to stem deadly cycles of gun violence. When it comes to an epidemic that claims 40,000 American lives a year, there is always more to be done, but I couldn’t be more grateful to have the Biden administration as a thoughtful and eager partner in this fight.
Gun violence spiked during the pandemic and has continued to rise in some places this year, with relatively little public outcry compared to what greeted mass shootings in the past. Do you worry the public has become numb to the issue?
People have certainly had a lot on their minds throughout the pandemic ― from concern for their own health and well-being and that of their families, to economic uncertainty and rising unemployment, to the long-overdue protests for racial justice that dominated headlines last summer. Yet gun violence has not gone away, as you noted ― in fact, it’s gotten worse.
And Americans are still worried about it: According to polling released this July, 84% of Americans see gun violence and mass shootings as a “crisis” or “major problem.” I would encourage these Americans, again, to get involved and make their voices heard to their elected officials. The gun lobby and its supporters are a small minority that takes up far too big a share of the public discourse. Together, we have the power to overcome their fearmongering and pass commonsense measures that will save lives.
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