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Gun control has personal meaning for Gabby Giffords

Gabby Giffords (shown in 2014) was severely wounded in a 2011 gun rampage in Arizona. Now the former congresswoman is touring the country promoting gun control.
Gabby Giffords (shown in 2014) was severely wounded in a 2011 gun rampage in Arizona. Now the former congresswoman is touring the country promoting gun control. The Associated Press

Gabby Giffords didn’t take up gun control as a cause when her 2011 shooting was the main story. The holes in gun ownership laws that enabled her shooter to leave her brain damaged and six others dead in a supermarket parking lot near Tucson, Ariz., had not been a focus of her political career. Nor would it be until about a year after the Jan. 8, 2011, attack on her, after another gunman in another state opened fire at an elementary school.

After the Sandy Hook school shootings in Newtown, Conn., the former congresswoman and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, had seen enough. They co-founded a political action committee called Americans for Responsible Solutions, using their voices to push lawmakers for tighter gun laws.

In Giffords’ case, the will is stronger than the voice. The 46-year-old understands everything but is only able to call up a few words at a time. It’s called aphasia, a memory glitch resulting from trauma to the brain that makes words temporarily unavailable when she needs them.

“Children,” she explained in a Des Moines, Iowa, interview Monday. “So sad.”

So her 14-state, six-week bus tour of the country on Monday pulled up in front of the Iowa state Capitol in Des Moines, where Giffords was joined by Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate and House and members of the Iowa Legislature who favor gun reforms. But she said only a few public words at the event. Afterward, I got to spend half an hour with her. We were joined by some of her traveling companions, including Isabelle James, deputy political director of Americans for Responsible Solutions.

Giffords’ courage, confidence and resoluteness in the face of her limitations are remarkable. She walks with a limp and cannot drive, but she rode 40 miles on her bicycle last year. She notes her vocabulary has improved since she was in rehab.

Since Sandy Hook, there have been 1,126 mass shootings in America. But earlier pledges to make guns harder to come by have fallen short.

So the campaign aims to go directly to voters.

Giffords and Kelly don’t oppose the Second Amendment, James said. They own guns, as does Giffords’ mother Gloria, who lives on a ranch where they all do target shooting.

Giffords’ shooter had been diagnosed with a mental illness and showed growing signs of violence, according to James. She says his family “knew he shouldn’t have a gun, but there was nothing they could do.” So the campaign is supporting “extreme-risk protection orders,” which she says would give families and law enforcement the tools to remove guns from someone who’s a risk.

I asked Giffords if she still has nightmares about the shooting. “Move ahead,” she said. Asked how she stays grounded and upbeat, she rattled off a list that included yoga, prayer, Spanish language and French horn lessons. Learning the latter two were New Year’s resolutions she has kept.

Back in 1993, I interviewed University of Iowa student Miya Rodolfo-Sioson, another shooting survivor. She’d been one of six victims of graduate student Gang Lu’s shooting rampage in 1991, and the only one who lived. (She has since died).

She was paralyzed from the neck down. Asked why she didn’t feel sorry for herself, Rodolfo-Sioson said: “I always compare my situation to the situation of people in other countries like Central America. I had the benefit of a lot of really good medical care that allowed me to go on living and doing the same kind of work. … I’m still very privileged living here in the U.S.”

Yes, America is extraordinary for its medical and technological advances and for the vibrant, resilient spirit that thrives in so many in spite of their hardships.

But America is backward in this way: Our people are 20 times as likely to be murdered by guns than people in other developed countries.

That has got to stop. This election is a good place to start.

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