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April 23, 2014

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Moving Forward:

Careful but determined, Gabrielle Giffords steps into life as advocate

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The News-Times, Jason Rearick / AP

Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, center, holds hands with her husband, Mark Kelly, while exiting Town Hall at Fairfield Hills Campus in Newtown, Conn., after meeting with Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra and other officials on Friday, Jan. 4, 2013. At far left is Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman; behind Giffords to the left is U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Giffords also met with families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre that left 26 people dead.

TUCSON — Gabrielle Giffords looked slightly stricken as she considered the question: Would she feel bad about starring in a political advertisement against her former House colleagues who declined to stand with her on guns? “Yes,” she said, it would be painful.

“Sometimes you have to do things that are hard,” said Mark Kelly, Giffords’ husband, as she tucked herself close to him on their couch.

Giffords nodded, as she often does when Kelly — as he often does — intuits the many thoughts she is still unable to express fully.

“Really hard,” she said.

Giffords, a former Democratic congresswoman from Arizona, a gun owner, an astronaut’s wife, a shooting survivor and an incipient gun-control advocate, is settling into the third act of her public life.

Her career as a lawmaker is behind her, but so is her role as the fragile, slightly mysterious victim in the months after she was shot point-blank in a parking lot just over two years ago. Now, she is the face and emotional dynamism behind a new advocacy group and a separate political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions, dedicated to reducing gun violence. It is an effort, she said, that gives her “purpose.”

Giffords’ hair, short and wispy for some time after her brain surgery, has returned to its natural bounce. Once heavily guarded by Capitol Police officers and a stream of medical professionals, Giffords now lives with Kelly; his 15-year-old daughter, Claire; and Nelson, her service dog, in a modern adobe-style house.

Giffords’ ability to understand others is unscathed. During a two-hour interview, she talked about whether she missed Washington (“a little”); explained, in short phrases, her positions on firearms; and made a sly one-word joke (“wasteland”) about one of her least favorite places. She revealed the provenance of some of her paintings (her old congressional office), pointed out one that was PG-13 (a semiabstract nude) and lamented what a recent frost had taken from her garden. Once limited to two words — “what” and “chicken” — each month she gains more.

Speaking in full sentences is still a struggle, and she has regular therapy sessions to help recover her speech and to manage her other impairments. Her vision is impaired, and her right leg and arm are largely paralyzed. She can move her shoulder, her hip and slightly her foot.

The rest of her time is largely spent preparing for the legislative battles, political campaigns and potential faceoffs with friends and former colleagues that will be waged through her month-old organizations. She and Kelly already are looking at governor contests, congressional special elections and 2014 races. They hope to influence the outcome by leveraging the power of their names and their story, an effort presaged last month when Giffords lit up a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with her brief and powerful plea: “We must do something.”

“Sometimes there will be some difficult conversations,” Kelly said. “There already have been.”

For nearly two decades, the National Rifle Association has succeeded in rewarding lawmakers who backed legislation supporting gun rights and firearm manufacturers and punishing those who did not. Those efforts largely overwhelmed the voices on the opposing side.

But after the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December that left 20 children dead, Giffords and Kelly — with others such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York — are trying to sway races from the other side.

Bloomberg’s political action committee, Independence USA, was widely credited with bringing an end to the career of Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., last year after it spent $3.3 million on television ads and mailers attacking him. That political action committee is now focusing on Debbie Halvorson, a Democratic former congresswoman who is running in a special election to succeed former Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. in the Chicago area.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence recently ran newspaper advertisements against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., a freshman who has been critical of President Barack Obama’s legislative proposals to curtail some guns, and made a video criticizing Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., a strong advocate of gun rights.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group, has run an ad attacking Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, for his positions on guns.

Click to enlarge photo

In this June 12, 2012, file photo, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, accompanied by her husband Mark Kelly, are seen in Tucson, Ariz.

These efforts are “one of the most important things that has happened,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute, the director of the violence prevention research program at the University of California, Davis. “What has been completely missing is the financial counterweight to the NRA.”

Giffords and Kelly are particularly focused on two areas Obama is pushing: an enhanced system of background checks that would prevent more criminals and the mentally ill from buying guns, and a limit on the capacity of magazines.

“A universal background check would have directly affected what happened here in Tucson,” Kelly said, referring to the shooting in which six people were killed and many others, including his wife, were injured. The gunman, Jared Loughner, had been suspended from community college for behavioral reasons.

Giffords’ two organizations have raised millions of dollars from small online donations and from bigger gifts, including $1 million from Steve and Amber Mostyn, Houston trial lawyers, and a six-figure donation from Bloomberg.

“We’re going to have to have money to be effective,” Kelly said.

Bloomberg brings some of his substantial fortune to the cause, Wintemute said, but “what he is not, and what Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly are, are personally compelling representatives of the position that firearm violence need not be tolerated.”

The paradox of Giffords’ role is clear. As a gun owner (she and her husband went target shooting just a few months ago) and a Westerner whose recovery has been watched closely across the nation, she is an effective spokeswoman for some changes to gun laws. Yet, speaking is still her hardest task.

Kelly, a retired astronaut and former naval aviator who has emerged as a forceful, politically astute advocate for his wife’s cause, fills in the verbal blanks on conference calls and in meetings with donors and members.

Giffords’ liability is in some ways her best asset; her labored speech is a stark reminder that even a member of Congress can be gunned down in broad daylight by someone who is mentally ill and armed with high-capacity magazines. Her short plea to Congress that “you must act” was the most memorable moment of a several-hour Senate hearing.

“With just a few words,” said John Feinblatt, Bloomberg’s chief policy adviser, “she was able to express the feelings of a nation.”

Their uphill battle is bringing along lawmakers who feel pressed by the NRA to resist enhanced background checks and limits on high-capacity ammunition, as Giffords once did.

“Gabby, as a member of Congress, knows where they are coming from,” Kelly said. “We believe strongly that the Second Amendment affords every American the right to defend their home and defend their property with a gun. But there needs to be reasonable limits.”

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