by Jim Nintzel
Gabby Giffords returned today to the Safeway parking lot where a gunman shot her through the head two years ago to urge the U.S. Senate to take action on legislation requiring background checks.
Flanked by her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, Giffords delivered a brief message to Congress: “Be bold. Be courageous. Support background checks.”
Giffords, Kelly and several of the other victims and survivors of the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting massacre gathered this afternoon to encourage Arizonans to ask Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake to support expanding background checks. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to mark up a background-check bill tomorrow, but Politico reported this afternoon that a bipartisan effort to craft a bill had fallen apart over differences regarding whether non-licensed sellers would have to keep records of firearm transactions.
As Giffords and Kelly arrived at the Safeway this morning, they laid a bouquet of white flowers at the memorial for the six people who were killed during the Tucson rampage: 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, federal Judge John M. Roll, Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman and retirees Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck and Dorwan Stoddard.
Kelly, with Giffords by his side, then took to the podium to call on the public to contact McCain and Flake to let them know they should support new laws that would expand background checks to gun sales by unlicensed dealers and to make it easier to block sales to mentally ill people who pose a danger to themselves or others.
Kelly pointed out that the Tucson shooter had a history of run-ins with authorities as a result of his deteriorating mental state.
“It was clear that the shooter had a history of mental illness, but he had easy access to a gun,” Kelly said. “He purchased his gun with a background check. But if things were different, he would have failed that background check. Not only did he have a history of mental illness, but he had a history of drug use that the U.S. government knew about.”
But even if the shooter had been blocked by a background check, Kelly said, “he could have easily gone down the street to a gun show or on the Internet to gain access to a firearm without being subject to a background check.”
Kelly noted that McCain and Flake had both said in recent weeks that they supported some form of legislation that would expand the use of background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, but the political debate remains complex.
Emily Nottingham, the mother of slain Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman, said it was difficult to be at the Safeway.
“It’s hard to be here today, here where my son was gunned down, here where his body lay on that sidewalk for hours,” Nottingham said. “I’m here because I think that right now, we have an opportunity…. For a very long time, our society has agreed that felons and people who have certain severe mental illnesses should not own guns. … But that system is riddled with holes—bullet holes—and it needs to be fixed.”
Pam Simon, a former aide to Giffords who was among the 13 people wounded on Jan. 8, 2011, remembered pulling into the parking lot on a sunny but chilly morning and buying a pair of gloves for Giffords.
Simon, who has been active with Mayors Against Illegal Guns since retiring from the congressional office, said the Congress On Your Corner event “should have been a day for all of these people gathered to share their thoughts with their congresswoman. Instead, it turned into a day of tragedy that should have been a wake-up call for this country. Everybody said afterwards that something has to change. But they said it after Aurora. They said it after Wisconsin. They said it after the Sikh temple. And finally we had the unbelievable carnage of 20 little children in Newtown. … And so I join with my friends Gabby and Mark in calling on senators to vote yes, to get this first step in this common-sense legislation through our Congress.”
Susie Hileman, the neighbor who brought Christina-Taylor Green to the event, said she remembers imagining “the sparks that were going to fly” when Christina-Taylor—an aspiring politician at Mesa Verde Elementary School—shook hands with Giffords.
“A civics lesson was turned into a nightmare,” Hileman said. “I lost a playmate. Her parents lost a daughter. We miss her every day.”
Hileman expressed frustration with the political excuses for not moving forward with restrictions on guns.
“I have heard it all, and I am tired of it,” Hileman said. “If we could save one life, if we could keep one family from feeling the awful, empty ache, if we could do something, and that that something is a common-sense something, and that something is a responsible step … I think it behooves us all to act. Not just to go home and nod your head and say, ‘Wasn’t that touching?’ But to actually do something.”
Ken Dorushka, who was shot while shielding his wife during the Tucson rampage, said the Second Amendment, like the other amendments to the U.S. Constitution, has limits.
“When you talk about rights, I always want to go back and say the right of Christina-Taylor Green to see her 10th birthday supercedes the right of anybody else to have an AK-47.”
The press conference, which drew national attention, was another step toward ratcheting up public pressure for new guns laws. Giffords and Kelly have formed Americans for Responsible Solution, a political-action committee that also began running TV ads in key states, including Arizona.
Kelly promised that the public would see more of Gabby Giffords in the future.
“In the last two months, Gabby is back,” Kelly said, setting off cheer and applause among those who had gathered to watch the press conference. “Gabby is back and she is committed to doing whatever it takes to make sure that this Congress and this president pass and sign meaningful gun-violence legislation and, specifically, right now, make sure that we get a universal background check bill that, I remind you again, 92 percent of all Americans support.”