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A pop, a flash and a life forever changed: Giffords' comeback and gun debate

By Dana Bash, CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent
updated 6:41 AM EDT, Thu April 11, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gabby Giffords, shot in the head two years ago, recalls facing her shooter, Jared Loughner
  • Partially paralyzed, today, she and her husband adjust to a new normal
  • Giffords finds herself at the center of the debate over background checks and gun control

Tucson, Arizona (CNN) -- Gabby Giffords remembers facing her assailant at his sentencing.

"Beady eyes," she said of Jared Loughner, who shot the former Arizona congresswoman in the head with a 9mm Glock pistol. Six people died and 13 were injured that day when the deranged gunman opened fire in front of a Tucson supermarket.

At the sentencing last November, Giffords sat stoically -- staring Loughner down -- as her husband, Mark Kelly, spoke to the court.

"Well, yes, he had some interesting expressions on his face," said Kelly. "And she did not look away."

"Beady eyes," Giffords repeated.

In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with CNN, Giffords and Kelly understand they are now in the center of the heated debate over gun control and background checks, while still struggling to rebuild their lives after that day in January 2011, when their lives changed forever.

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Old self, new challenges

What is most shocking about 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.

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

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

Being with Giffords, 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.

As a result of her gunshot wound, Giffords suffers from a condition called aphasia, and that it is "very difficult for her," said Kelly. Aphasia is an impairment to language-related functions, such as speaking, writing, listening and reading.

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

"Occupational therapy, yogurt," said Giffords.

Kelly, a former astronaut, 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."

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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.

But she doesn't see very well.

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

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

In the same house as a family

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 with NASA.

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.

Another difference? Before Giffords was shot, she had a rocky relationship with Kelly's two teenage daughters from a previous marriage.

"Yes, changed," says Giffords.

"Yes, a lot better," echoes Kelly.

"They've, well, they've also grown up a little bit, too. And, you know, as a family, we've evolved because of ... you know, because of what happened," said Kelly.

"So it's brought us all closer together," said Kelly.

And, as parents, for Giffords and Kelly, thoughts return to her shooter, Loughner.

"So sad. Mentally ill," Giffords added.

Newly-released court documents reveal that Loughner's parents suspected something was wrong - that he heard voices and exhibited other alarming behavior.

"As a parent, you know you can empathize with somebody who went thru that ... where their kid did this horrific thing. At the same time, you know, there were indications of his mental illness. You know, the school knew about it. His parents knew about it. And he didn't have -- didn't seem to have a lot of options for good treatment," said Kelly.

In the past two years, Giffords and Kelly have not heard from Loughner's parents. Would they want to?

"Um, not really," said Giffords.

Giffords suffered yet another tragedy a few months ago.

Her father Spencer -- with whom she had a special bond -- died suddenly. He taught her a lot about humor, strength and responsibility, handing her the keys to his tire business when she was just 26.

Giffords' grit and determination also comes from her mother, Gloria -- a force of nature. She is an artist whose home is in the middle of the desert, miles from civilization.

Off-roading with Gabby

You have to go off-road to get there. There are so many desert rocks that on the way home, Kelly got a flat tire in the pitch black night.

Giffords, the daughter of a tire salesman and expert tire changer in her own right, got out of the car to help.

Giffords bond with mother, who sat by her hospital bed for countless hours and still plays a central role in her long road to recovery, is tighter than ever.

And there may be a sliver of hope for Giffords, now 42, to have a child of her own. When she was shot, she was trying to get pregnant with fertility treatments.

They still have two frozen embryos. But given Giffords injuries, they'd likely have to use a surrogate.

"I don't know," said Giffords, looking over at Kelly for his response.

"We -- you know, we talk about it. We talk about it. We haven't made a decision," said Kelly.

Asked whether she is ever resentful about what happened to her, Giffords replied:

"No. No."

"Move ahead. Move ahead," she said.

CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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