For Giffords, Progress on Gun Safety Is Like Her Recovery: ‘Inch by Inch’

WASHINGTON — Twelve years after a bullet ripped through the left side of her brain, Gabrielle Giffords speaks mainly in stock phrases and short bursts, conveying meaning with her eyes or a boxer’s swing of her left arm, the one that is still fully mobile. “Enough is enough!” she might say. Or: “Be passionate! Be courageous!”

But in an interview at the headquarters of the gun safety group that bears her name, amid a string of mass shootings in California, there was something more that Ms. Giffords wanted to say. Asked what Americans should know about her, she closed her eyes and rocked slowly back and forth, as if to summon words from deep within. She shushed a colleague who tried to speak for her. And then she delivered a speech unlike any she had given as a congresswoman from Arizona, before the 2011 mass shooting that nearly killed her.

“I’m getting better,” she said haltingly, laboring over each word. “Slowly, I’m getting better. Long, hard haul, but I’m getting better. Our lives can change so quickly. Mine did when I was shot. I’ve never given up hope. I chose to make a new start, to move ahead, to not look back. I’m relearning so many things — how to walk, how to talk — and I’m fighting to make the country safer. It can be so difficult. Losses hurt; setbacks are hard. But I tell myself: Move ahead.”

Ms. Giffords, 52, who goes by Gabby, is arguably America’s most famous gun violence survivor. She had come to the group’s headquarters in Washington for an update and a strategy session. The timing of her visit underscored two competing truths: The gun safety movement she helps lead is stronger than ever. But the nation’s gun violence epidemic is worsening.

In part because of the efforts of Giffords, the group Ms. Giffords and her husband founded 10 years ago, so-called red flag laws aimed at keeping guns away from potentially dangerous people have now been enacted in 19 states and the District of Columbia; states adopted dozens of new gun safety laws in 2022 alone. Breaking nearly 30 years of partisan gridlock, Congress passed a modest package of gun safety measures last year. Democrats, who once feared the gun rights lobby, are now running on gun safety platforms.

But already this year, 84 people have died in 49 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines mass shootings as those in which four or more people are shot or killed.

A divided Congress means there is little hope for ambitious reforms in Washington. The Supreme Court, now with a six-justice conservative majority, ruled last year that Americans have a broad right to carry guns, making it harder for states to impose restrictions.

Ghost guns — untraceable firearms assembled from components bought online — are proliferating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls firearm deaths “a significant and growing public health problem.” In 2021, 81 percent of homicides and 55 percent of suicides involved guns.

“Without the laws we’ve passed, even more people would be dead,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who led the push for last year’s package of gun safety measures. “But right now, we’re losing the race. We’re passing laws at a quick rate, but not fast enough to keep up with the pace of new weapons in communities and in homes.”

Gabrielle Giffords at the headquarters of the gun safety group that bears her name. States adopted dozens of new gun safety laws in 2022 alone.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Ms. Giffords is an optimist, but also a realist. In written answers to questions — an accommodation she sought because conversation is difficult — she conceded that persuading Congress to pass sweeping laws, like banning assault weapons or requiring gun manufacturers to make weapons with safety devices like fingerprint locks, “will be tough.”

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But she likened the effort to her own painstaking recovery — a fight back that will never get her where she once was. “Progress,” she said, “happens inch by inch.”

Each day in the United States, upward of 200 people are wounded by guns and more than 110 are killed, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, another advocacy group, which has declared the first week in February as National Gun Violence Survivors Week. The figures include suicides, homicides, accidents and police shootings.

Keenon James, who runs the group’s survivor network, is among millions of Americans touched by gun violence; his older brother was shot and killed in 1993. He said Ms. Giffords had put a powerful spotlight on the experiences of survivors.

“She is absolutely a symbol of resilience,” he said. “That experience may have changed her, but it has not stopped her.”

One thing it did stop, however, is her political career. Her husband, the former astronaut Mark Kelly, is now a Democratic senator from Arizona, a job to which she once aspired.

In Congress, Ms. Giffords was a centrist Democrat who opposed the death penalty but supported gun rights. She owned a 9-millimeter Glock to protect herself after two home burglaries. In recent years, her group has sought to enlist gun owners; eight states now have chapters of Gun Owners for Safety, a Giffords initiative.

In a sign of the political realities she faces, Ms. Giffords’s home state of Arizona is not among them. The state does not have a red flag law and allows people 21 or older to carry a concealed, loaded firearm in public without a permit. Mr. Kelly said it would be a “tough proposition” to get gun safety measures through the State Legislature. And he has not been especially vocal about gun safety as a senator.

“My style on this stuff is to show up and do the work here,” he said last week during an interview in his Senate office, “not be on TV talking about it.”

Ms. Giffords’s husband, the former astronaut Mark Kelly, is now a Democratic senator from Arizona, a job to which she once aspired.Credit…Rebecca Noble/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Two major gun rights groups, the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America, did not respond to requests for comment.

On a Saturday morning in January 2011, Ms. Giffords was greeting constituents at a “Congress on Your Corner” event outside a Safeway supermarket in Tucson when a gunman shot her at point-blank range before turning on the crowd. The authorities later found evidence of his plan to assassinate her. Six people died, including a federal judge, an aide to Ms. Giffords and a 9-year-old girl. Thirteen were wounded, including Ms. Giffords.

Ms. Giffords’s own injuries were so grievous that early news reports pronounced her dead. Mr. Kelly, in Houston preparing for a space mission, rushed to the hospital in Tucson to find his wife comatose. Her doctors, he said, “couldn’t give me any guarantee that she’d ever come out of the coma, or what her condition would be.”

The shooting left Ms. Giffords partially paralyzed on her right side; today, after years of occupational and physical therapy, she wears a leg brace and can walk, though she often uses a cane. She can lift her right arm almost shoulder high and wiggle her fingers. She can ride a recumbent bike, is learning to write with her left hand and is relearning how to play the French horn. She can still sing certain songs, word for word.

But because the bullet destroyed neurons in the part of the brain that controls language, it robbed Ms. Giffords of a prized tool for politicians: the ability to speak fluently. Those who know her best — including Fabi Hirsch, her speech pathologist — say that does not mean she cannot communicate. She just gets her message across differently than before.

In medical terms, Ms. Giffords suffers from aphasia, a language disorder that Dr. Hirsch said affects her ability to speak and understand spoken words, as well as read and write. But her intellect and cognitive ability are intact, Dr. Hirsch said.

Ms. Giffords spent six months after the shooting at a rehabilitation hospital in Houston. With her head shaved and stitches across her skull where surgeons had removed a chunk of it, she was required to wear a helmet, which she “hated,” she said. During speech therapy, she often got stuck on a single word — a phenomenon called “perseveration,” Dr. Hirsch said.

For Ms. Giffords, the word was chicken. “Chicken, chicken, chicken,” she would repeat, over and over again.

She resigned her House seat in early 2012. Later that year, a gunman went on a rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 children and six staff members. That was the impetus for the founding of Giffords, originally called Americans for Responsible Solutions, in January 2013. Everytown was also founded in 2013, when two other gun safety groups — Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America — merged.

The movement was not especially sophisticated before Sandy Hook, said Josh Horwitz, who worked for and later ran the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence for nearly 30 years before joining the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Giffords and Everytown, he said, employed a “political campaign approach,” harnessing online fund-raising and social media in a way that enabled gun safety activists to finally compete with the National Rifle Association.

“The N.R.A. had this competitive advantage because they had all these gun stores and gun shows recruiting for them every day — ‘Join the N.R.A.!’” he said. “And for the first time, we were able to go head-to-head with them, collecting new members.”

But the fallout from Sandy Hook did not result in new gun safety laws at the federal level. And the package of gun safety measures passed by Congress last year received mixed reviews from experts. Lawrence O. Gostin, an expert in public health law at Georgetown University, called it “weak sauce and window dressing,” adding that he feared Ms. Giffords would never win her fight.

“It’s not winnable in her lifetime, and I say that with enormous tears in my eyes,” he said. “It is getting worse, because we’re becoming completely numb to it, and there’s a certain inevitability to mass shootings that we think is unfixable. And once you think it’s unfixable, it is unfixable.”

Ms. Giffords refuses to think that way. She is relentlessly upbeat and extremely busy; accompanied by a medical assistant, she spends about half her time traveling, raising awareness and money to help elect like-minded political candidates and to support Giffords. The organization includes an advocacy arm, a law center based in San Francisco and a political action committee. It has about 70 paid staff members and a $30 million annual budget, said Peter Ambler, its executive director.

When Ms. Giffords was shot in 2011, she lost a prized tool for politicians: the ability to speak fluently.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Her home base is still Tucson, where she and a family friend joined with Dr. Hirsch to found a nonprofit called Friends of Aphasia to provide support and treatment to those with the disorder, which affects about two million Americans. (The group’s tagline: “Let’s get people talking.”) When she is in town, she works with Dr. Hirsch three days a week.

Some things have not changed. Ms. Giffords and Mr. Kelly still have a “commuter marriage,” he said. She is still a hugger — maybe even more so now. When she arrived at the Giffords headquarters last week, she hugged nearly every person in the room.

She still enjoys the spotlight. She was grand marshal of the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., this month. She does yoga twice a week and is taking Spanish lessons; she was once fluent in the language. She went skydiving on the third anniversary of the shooting.

In November 2021, after two years of study, she celebrated her bat mitzvah; her great-grandfather was a Lithuanian rabbi, and she wanted to get in touch with her Jewish roots. Last year, she was the subject of a poignant documentary that chronicled her comeback. The film included footage that Mr. Kelly asked a friend to record in the days and weeks after she was wounded.

In the interview, Ms. Giffords said it was not hard for her to look at those images. “Move ahead,” she said. “Do not look back.” Asked what message she has for the people she meets, she said: “Forgiveness. Forgiveness.”

She was asked: Why forgiveness?

“Shooting. Shooting. Shooting. Shooting,” she said. Her meaning was clear: She has forgiven her shooter. “Yes, yes, yes,” she said, when asked if that was what she meant.

Aphasia remains her biggest challenge. To make the most of her public appearances, she practices speaking, word by word by word. For the interview, a public relations representative provided The New York Times with a list of questions she had practiced answering. Typically, those answers consisted of a short sentence or two. But during the conversation, Ms. Giffords also answered unscripted questions, including the one that prompted her brief, moving speech.

Ms. Giffords had been practicing that speech for “months and months,” Dr. Hirsch said, adding that she was “thrilled” to hear that Ms. Giffords had “used it in a more spontaneous context.”

It ended like this: “I’m finding joy in small things: riding my bike, playing the French horn, going to the gym, laughing with friends. The small things add up! We are living in challenging times, but we are up for the challenge.” She continued on in that vein, before ending with a rousing “Amen!”

“Our lives can change so quickly,” Ms. Giffords said. “Mine did when I was shot. I’ve never given up hope.”Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

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