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Every one of the countless mass shootings that has plagued the United States is its own tragic story, even if they are linked together by guns.
The 2011 shooting of 18 people in a Safeway parking lot in Tucson, Arizona, in which six died, received more attention than most. That shooting fused gun violence and political violence because it was a targeted attack on then-Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head but somehow survived.
A new documentary uses private family video to detail Giffords’ unexpected survival, her struggle to relearn how to speak and her subsequent work as an activist trying to convince gun owners to embrace new gun safety laws.
I talked to Giffords by email about her life now, her work as an activist and her mission to talk across party lines about guns. That conversation is below.
Why did you share this painful video?
WOLF: The film opens with a video of you in the hospital in the days and weeks after the shooting. What made you decide to publicly share the video of this very personal and vulnerable time in your life?
GIFFORDS: A few months ago, I received a video from an 11-year-old girl named Marina. She’d had a stroke and now lives with aphasia. She talked about how she’s fighting to get better too. She and her mom shared that they watch “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” when they need inspiration.
Stories like this are why I made that decision, as hard as it is for me to rewatch and relive those moments. Knowing that sharing the personal and sometimes painful details of what happened to me could help someone make it through a challenge in their life – whether it’s related to aphasia or gun violence or something else entirely – that makes it worth it for me.
Of course, it also helped that I trusted Betsy (West) and Julie (Cohen), the film’s directors. I loved “RBG,” and knew that this footage would be in good hands with them. I wasn’t disappointed!
How do you approach a Q&A like this?
WOLF: It’s clear from the film that you work hard to formulate your thoughts and get help practicing before public speaking. What are some of the challenges you face in doing a Q&A like this, and how do you work through them?
GIFFORDS: I almost always wear a rubber wristband (sometimes more than one, so I can give them out to people) that says: “aphasia: loss of words, not intelligence.”
I co-founded the organization Friends of Aphasia with my speech therapist Fabi Hirsch because we wanted to both support people living with aphasia and help educate the broader public about what aphasia is. We have a long way to go: There are currently an estimated 2 million people living with aphasia in the United States, but 85% of Americans have never heard the word.
Aphasia affects my communication, but not my cognition. Sometimes it’s hard for me to find the right word in conversation. Sometimes I pull the wrong one.
In the very early days of my recovery, as the film shows, I could only say two words: “what” and “chicken.” I’ve come a long way since then, but learning a new speech involves months and months of practice. Doing written interviews is easier, but still involves hard work, collaboration and iteration to get things right.
The easiest way for me to express myself extemporaneously is singing – that’s why there’s so much of it in the film!
Your husband has the Senate seat you once eyed. How are you involved in his work?
WOLF: Your husband has in many ways taken over your place in Arizona politics. He sits in the US Senate, and we learn in the film that you were considering a run for Senate just before you were shot. How are you now involved in his work as a senator?
GIFFORDS: I’m so proud of Mark and the way he represents Arizona. Though I know he’s excited to have these elections behind him, I’ve really loved being on the campaign trail in Arizona and meeting new people around the state.
There’s no way either of us could have predicted the ways our lives would change on January 8, 2011. Six people were shot and killed that day, and the fact that I survived is something I’ve never taken for granted.
My career in Congress may have ended, as did Mark’s career as an astronaut, but we’ve both found different ways to continue our mission of public service. He likes to say that he learned about this side of public service from me, and I’ve got plenty of advice for him especially when it comes time for a big speech, but he does this in his own way. That’s always been a really important part of our partnership.
What’s your advice to John Fetterman?
WOLF: The incoming senator John Fetterman in Pennsylvania is suffering from an auditory processing disorder after a stroke. As someone with aphasia, which hinders a person’s ability to communicate, what’s your advice to Fetterman and to Pennsylvanians as they watch him struggle with words?
GIFFORDS: I have so much respect for Senator-elect Fetterman. I know how hard it is to recover in the public eye. He not only persevered in his fight to represent Pennsylvanians in the Senate – he won a close race, one that has tremendous stakes for our country.
I have so much admiration for the courage and resilience he showed. Pennsylvanians voted for John Fetterman because of his policy positions, his track record and his character. I’m looking forward to working with the Senator-elect to help make his state and our country safer from gun violence.
What should be done about political violence?
WOLF: You have dedicated your life to gun safety. But you are also a victim of political violence. What should be done about the rise of political violence?
GIFFORDS: I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it: words matter. Violent rhetoric, conspiracy theories, hate speech: All of it can translate to violence in the real world.
It’s horrifying that running for elected office in this country means putting yourself and your loved ones in harm’s way. It doesn’t have to be like this. Politicians and others in the public eye must wholeheartedly denounce acts of political violence.
Another part of the problem is our country’s weak federal gun laws and nearly unlimited access to guns. In 28 states, people convicted of injuring a victim in a violent hate crime can still buy guns. That’s unconscionable. We need to pass legislation like the Disarm Hate Act to better protect not just our elected officials, but all Americans, from hate-related violence.
Why do you still own guns?
WOLF: The other video in the film that caught my eye was of you firing a handgun. You have tried to build support for gun safety among gun owners. Are you still a gun owner? What kind of guns do you own, and why would you still own them?
GIFFORDS: I’m still a gun owner. I grew up in what I like to call “the wild, wild West” in Tucson. I brought my horse Buckstretcher, named after the slogan of my family’s tire business, to college in California. Guns and sports shooting were part of the culture that I grew up in, as they are for many Americans today.
One of the worst lies that the gun lobby has spread is that people who believe in gun safety laws want to take away everyone’s guns. The truth is that states with the strongest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun violence – not no guns, just less gun violence. That’s why we created a Gun Owners for Safety coalition, because gun safety really matters. Safe storage can mean the difference between life and death in a gun-owning household.
When I was in Congress, it was extremely important to me to reach across the aisle to pass legislation. When I founded Giffords, I didn’t want to spearhead an organization that was out of touch with the millions of Americans who own guns. I wanted to speak with and represent them too, especially since I’m one of them. I hope that’s what I’ve done with Gun Owners for Safety.
Why doesn’t gun violence drive votes?
WOLF: Why do you think the issue of gun violence was not more of a driver in these elections in a year that saw the most horrifying school shooting imaginable?
GIFFORDS: Even though inflation and the economy, both important topics, dominated the national narrative, gun violence and public safety weren’t far from voters’ minds. Exit polls listed gun safety as a top issue for voters.
Americans rejected many of the most extreme Republican candidates, people who wanted to completely eliminate the right to choose and who denied the results of the 2020 presidential election. This extremism also applied to guns.
My organization ran ads against Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania, who once said “categorically no background checks,” and against Joe O’Dea in Colorado, who was endorsed by the NRA’s Colorado state chapter. These candidates lost to Senator-elect John Fetterman and Senator Michael Bennet, leaders who have demonstrated they care about the safety of their constituents.
WOLF: The first new national gun safety law in decades was signed into law this year. What is the next achievable step in your movement?
GIFFORDS: Universal background checks remain a top priority for us and has vast bipartisan support. It won’t be easy, because of the sway the gun lobby still has over many Republican members of Congress. But many people had given up hope of passing any federal gun safety legislation, and then 15 Republican senators voted for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.
I’m so proud of everyone who fought so hard for this legislation, because it’s proof that progress is possible on this issue. We also want to keep funding community violence intervention and gun violence research – two areas that have been under-resourced for far too long and are critical to addressing this epidemic.