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'Stronger, better, tougher:' Giffords improves, but she'll never be the same

By Dana Bash, CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent
updated 9:39 AM EDT, Wed April 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords says 'good guy with a gun' doesn't work
  • Paralyzed on her right side and partly blind after being shot, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords defines a 'new normal'
  • Giffords and husband live in the same house, same state for the first time in their marriage
  • Even with moments of frustration, Giffords insists she is mostly optimistic and not resentful

This week, CNN TV and CNN.com will take an in-depth look at "Guns Under Fire: A CNN Special Report on Background Checks." At 8 and 10 p.m. ET, "AC360" will air Part II of Dana Bash's exclusive interview with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head two years ago in Arizona. Watch CNN TV and follow online at CNN.com or via CNN's apps for iPhone, iPad and Android.

Tucson, Arizona (CNN) -- What is most shocking about Gabby Giffords now is how much she looks like her old self. Her golden locks are back; so is the sparkle in her eyes and her broad smile. Gone is the short hair and thin frame we saw at the beginning of her recovery.

Yet she knows she will never be the same.

"Stronger. Stronger, better, tougher. Stronger, better, tougher." That's how Giffords describes herself.

The former Arizona congresswoman makes that declaration with determination and gusto. But it still takes a considerable amount of energy and concentration to articulate that, or anything else.

Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman from Arizona who was shot and wounded in a 2011 mass shooting, has embarked on gun control efforts with her husband, Mark Kelly. Look back at her life and career before and after she was shot. Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman from Arizona who was shot and wounded in a 2011 mass shooting, has embarked on gun control efforts with her husband, Mark Kelly. Look back at her life and career before and after she was shot.
Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona shooting survivor
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Photos: Survivor Gabrielle Giffords Photos: Survivor Gabrielle Giffords
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Being with Giffords, who was shot in the head two years ago during an appearance in front of an Arizona supermarket, it is obvious that she understands and absorbs everything around her. She follows conversation, reacts, engages and offers unsolicited ideas -- usually in the form of a single word or gesture that makes clear what she means.

Exclusive: Gabby Giffords still appreciates gun culture

But at times, even simple words are a struggle, like when she tries to explain how she spends her days.

"Occupational therapy, yogurt," said Giffords.

Her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, patiently and quietly corrects her, saying "yoga."

"Yoga, yoga," Giffords repeats, offering a playful smile to signal she gets how funny it was that she said "yogurt" instead of "yoga."

Gabby and Mark: The new 'Bradys' of gun control

She has go-to phrases that indicate how she feels, often saying "good stuff" to express encouragement and "whoa" to show something excites her or makes her happy.

The right-handed Giffords still has no use of that hand and that arm is paralyzed. She generally wears a sling to keep it from flopping around.

Her right leg is also paralyzed. She wears a large brace and literally drags her right leg with her good, left leg to walk. Still, she walks remarkably well.

Giffords has a service dog -- Nelson, a golden lab -- with her at all times.

She is also still aided by nurses, who come to her home, and by speech therapists, who constantly work with her to help improve her ability to communicate.

She also doesn't see very well.

'Yes, it's tough': For Giffords, a wounded life has a new purpose

"Not great at all," is how she described her vision.

Giffords has limited sight in both eyes, no peripheral vision to the right.

Kelly jokes that when he wants to sneak up on her he will come around the right so she can't see him coming.

That makes Giffords giggle.

It is clear watching the couple interact that humor helps keep her spirits up and eases the pressure of their intense daily struggle.

For Kelly and Giffords, this is the new normal -- a life together that neither could have ever imagined when they first got together. She was a bright young political rising star and he was an astronaut.

Kelly said it is "different in a lot of good ways."

The biggest difference? For the first time, they actually live in the same house, in the same city, in the same state.

Before Giffords was shot, she jetted between her home in Tucson and work in Washington, while Kelly lived and worked in Texas, home of Johnson Space Center.

They had a commuter marriage, which didn't allow them much time together. Now, they are together all the time, living in a ranch-style home they bought last summer.

And since January, the two have worked together as well. They started Americans for Responsible Solutions, an organization and super PAC dedicated to pushing Giffords' former colleagues in Congress to support new restrictions to help curb gun violence.

Giffords and Kelly own guns, and CNN filmed Kelly taking target practice with the same kind of gun Jared Loughner used to wound Giffords and kill six other people. Giffords says she would like to learn to shoot again, but it's not a high priority.

When asked about the National Rifle Association's argument that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," Giffords becomes animated.

"It doesn't work!" she says. "It doesn't work."

She says if she were still in Congress, she would have supported new gun-control legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.

Giffords' work and her recovery are not unrelated. Those around her said she has noticeably made more progress with her speech and physical challenges over the past few months since she re-engaged in the world of politics and public policy.

Kelly said Giffords does have moments of frustration, but both insist she is mostly optimistic and not resentful.

"No. Move ahead," said Giffords. "Move ahead."

CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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