DOVER, N.H. – Thirty months after she was shot through the head, former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords sits in a New Hampshire restaurant facing parents of children killed in the nation’s latest school shooting.
They are here to talk political strategy, but Giffords doesn’t say much. She doesn’t have to.
The 43-year-old Democrat has become the face of the fight for gun control – a woman now known as much for her actions as her words as she recovers from a 2011 attack that forever changed her life and ended six others. Giffords traveled more than 8,000 miles last week, her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, at her side, encouraging political leaders from Alaska to Maine to have the courage to defy the National Rifle Association.
“I don’t think any of us thought this was going to be easy,” Kelly tells three parents of children killed in the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, with Giffords next to him, nodding her agreement. “This is not going to be a quick fix. But we’re trying.”
The couple is nearing the end of a seven-states-in-seven-days tour across America, meeting with allies and opponents alike to generate momentum for federal legislation that would expand background checks on gun purchases. It’s a scaled-back version of a broad legislative package to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines proposed in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting rampage that left 20 children dead. But even scaled back, the measure was defeated in the Senate in April and has stalled in a divided Congress now preparing for its summer recess.
Giffords’ cross-country trek is the centerpiece of a summertime campaign designed to pressure elected officials in their own backyards. At the same time, her recently formed super PAC and related nonprofit group have ambitious plans to expand their political clout through the 2014 midterm elections and beyond. Organizers say the group, known as Americans for Responsible Solutions, is expected to raise at least $20 million to fuel paid television ads and political activities to coincide with the next election, the next gun control vote or both.
But during their tour, Giffords and Kelly are playing a more personal role. They are eating pie, sharing hugs and having frank conversations to connect with voters in traditional gun-owning states whose leaders have been largely reluctant to support expanded background checks in the face of NRA opposition.
And they are shooting guns to help make their point.
Kelly, a former Navy pilot whose parents were police officers, purchased a new rifle – he said it was his sixth or seventh gun – at the Village Gun Shop in New Hampshire’s north country on Friday. He waited less than five minutes for a background check and later tested his Savage .30-06 bolt-action rifle at a nearby shooting range. Giffords joined him at a Nevada shooting range earlier in the week, firing a gun for the first time since a mentally ill man took aim at her and opened fire in a Tucson, Ariz., shopping center as she met with constituents. Jared Lee Loughner, 24, was sentenced in November to seven consecutive life sentences, plus 140 years, after he pleaded guilty to 19 federal charges in the case.
It’s an attack that Kelly refers to often, using phrases like, “what happened to Gabby” and “when my wife was shot.” The couple are traveling with a handful of guns packed in a suitcase – all for personal use on their trip.
Sandy Holz, the shop’s owner in Whitefield, N.H., says she’s reluctant to endorse broad gun control legislation but would support a bill to requiring background checks for sales at gun shows and on the Internet, as the failed Senate bill would have done.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll in mid-May found that 67 percent of Americans felt the Senate wrongly rejected the background check bill.
A Pew Research Center poll conducted in early May found 81 percent favor making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks, support that transcends party lines.
But there is little sign of movement in Washington.
Despite Giffords’ and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s continued lobbying, none of the bill’s proponents report winning a single new vote since the measure’s April defeat. If anything, their task may have grown more difficult since the death last month of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who supported the checks. He has been replaced by Republican Sen. Jeff Chiesa, whose view on the subject is unclear.
Giffords and Kelly say they will not give up despite obvious health issues.
More than two years after the attack, Giffords travels with nurses and a speech therapist, a rarely used wheelchair in tow. Her right leg and arm are partially paralyzed. She walks on her own, her right leg dragging slightly, and she climbs stairs, often with Kelly or a staff member holding her left hand.
The brain injury has also affected her ability to speak.
Giffords offers enthusiastic, but slightly slurred stump speeches on the tour, in a halting style that sometimes brings tears to the eyes of her audience – and her staff.
“We must never stop fighting. Fight. Fight. Fight. Be bold, be courageous, the nation is counting on you,” she said at a Portland, Maine, press conference.
The entire speech, just 62 words, lasted less than two minutes.