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A ‘better, stronger’ Gabrielle Giffords

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times

Riccardo Savi/Special to the Aspen Times

In the days and weeks following the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. — where a lone gunman took the lives of 27 people, 20 of them young students — a national furor broke out over the need for stricter gun laws.

President Obama even gave a televised address on the day of the shootings and two days later said he would use “whatever power this office holds” to prevent future tragedies of that kind.

But as time has passed, the massive push for what many believe are reasonable restrictions on gun purchases and ownership has slowed considerably — a fact not lost on NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who interviewed former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, at the Hotel Jerome Ballroom on Sunday as part of an Aspen Ideas Festival discussion.

Giffords was the victim of a senseless shooting herself in January 2011 in her home state of Arizona when a gunman opened fire at supermarket where she was meeting with constituents. Seriously injured in that event, the Democrat resigned her seat and has been on a long road to recovery. Early this year, she and Kelly launched a political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions, which calls for universal background checks as a way of keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, terrorists and the mentally ill.

“After Sandy Hook, we all thought … I think everyone in America thought that there was going to be change,” Mitchell said midway through Sunday’s interview. “And the president was passionate, and the vice president was indefatigable, and here we are, all these months later.

“One wonders: What does it take to get people in America so exercised that they let their representatives know that this is important?” Mitchell asked.

Kelly said it was clear to Congress that there was widespread national support for legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that sought to expand background checks on gun purchasers. The Senate shot down the bill in April after the National Rifle Association at the last minute pulled its support for a version of it seen as a compromise.

“Even in Arizona, it polled near 80 percent,” Kelly said. “In Texas, it polls pretty high, … but it still couldn’t be passed. And that’s because of the influence of the gun lobby on Capitol Hill. So we just need to level the playing field. We’re going to do that over time.”

Kelly pointed out that both he and Giffords are supporters of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gives Americans the right to keep and bear arms. He said he doesn’t feel that he and Giffords “are on the other side” of U.S. citizens who are responsible gun owners.

“The NRA have been at this for 30 or 40 years where they have spent an enormous amount of time and money on building influence in Washington, D.C., by influencing House and Senate races. And there hasn’t been anybody doing that on what I hesitate to say is the other side of the issue,” Kelly said.

He called it “unacceptable” that seven months after the Sandy Hook shooting, the national response has been “to do nothing.”

“It’s our responsibility to change that,” he said.

Kelly did most of the talking during the interview; Giffords is still undergoing intensive speech therapy. She received a standing ovation as she entered the room and walked up to the ballroom stage and even answered a few questions in front of the crowd, speaking in a halting pattern.

Mitchell asked her about the difficulty of “jumping over political hurdles” to try to build a coalition of Republicans and Democrats that would support universal background checks.

“Really tough, really tough,” Giffords replied.

Mitchell asked if she was trying to “reclaim the old Gabby Giffords” through her gun-control efforts or create a “new Gabby Giffords.”

Giffords replied, “The new one. Better, stronger, tougher.”

She spoke of a typical day in her life, which involves speech therapy, walking on a treadmill, answering emails — and listening to Neil Diamond.

“Neil Diamond? Really?” husband Kelly responded. “You must be playing that when I’m not in the house.”

Mitchell commended Giffords for her optimism and spirit in the wake of her personal tragedy.

“I want to build a better place,” Giffords replied.

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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