Three years ago today, she was in the most mundane of places, a supermarket parking lot in Tucson. She was engaged in the most meaningful act in political life, talking to the people who had sent her to Washington. Then a bullet pierced Gabrielle Giffords’ brain.
The Arizona congresswoman was one of 19 who fell to bullets that day. Six would die.
Wednesday, she planned to jump from an airplane with a skydiving friend, another leap in her defiant reach for a life that came so close to ending. And she served notice that she will apply the determination that has marked her personal rehabilitation to the fight for gun restrictions that has been her public pursuit for the last year.
Giffords, now 43, left Congress in 2012 to gain more time for recovery; her seat is now held by Ron Barber, a former aide also shot that day. One year ago, after the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly formed Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group advocating what it terms reasonable answers to gun violence. By some measures, her rehabilitation has gone better than her gun control efforts, but Giffords said Wednesday she would persist on both fronts.
“This past year, I have achieved something big that I’ve not spoken of until now,” she said in a commentary published Wednesday in the New York Times. “Countless hours of physical therapy — and the talents of the medical community — have brought me new movement in my right arm. It’s fractional progress, and it took a long time, but my arm moves when I tell it to. Three years ago, I did not imagine my arm would move again. For so many days, it did not.
“I did exercise after exercise, day after day, until it did. I’m committed to my rehab and I’m committed to my country, and my resolution, standing with the vast majority of Americans who know we can and must be safer, is to cede no ground to those who would convince us the path is too steep, or we too weak.”
As is typical after a high-profile shooting, Giffords’ wounding propelled a raft of predictions that gun restrictions would be tightened. As is also typical, not much happened. Not much happened in the year since Newtown, either, as Giffords acknowledged; gun control proposals made by the Obama administration have largely foundered in Congress.
“Predictably, Washington disappointed us during the first year of our work with the organization,” she wrote. “Many of you were outraged at the failure of the Senate to pass the background checks bill, and so was I. But I continue to be inspired by my fellow Americans. By any measure, they’re with us .... We’re not daunted. We know that the gun lobby, which makes money by preventing sensible change, relies on dramatic disappointments to wound us, reduce our power, push us back on our heels.”
“Our fight is a lot more like my rehab. Every day, we must wake up resolved and determined.”
The emergence of groups like Giffords’ — and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, shepherded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — has boosted spending by gun control advocates but they were still outspent by a ratio of more than 6-1 last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks spending on legislative issues.
In Colorado, home to searing shootings in Columbine and Aurora, among other places, new restrictions prompted the successful recall last year of two Democratic legislators; a third resigned to avoid the same fate. (Gun control advocates believe they rebounded in November by aiding the gubernatorial win in Virginia by Democrat Terry McAuliffe.)
The latest policy moves on guns came last week, when the Obama administration announced new rules that would bring more mental health records into the federal background check system employed during some gun purchases. While the new rules could have blocked purchases in at least one high profile case — the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre — they do nothing to expand the types of gun purchases that require background checks, as Obama had earlier advocated.
On the anniversary of her shooting, Giffords merged the political and the personal. In her New York Times commentary, she called on Congress to pass proposals that she said represented consensus: making it illegal for stalkers and domestic abusers to buy guns, extending mental health resources, stiffening penalties for gun trafficking and strengthening the background check system.
But on Twitter she struck a more reflective tone.
“It’s been step by step since I was shot three years ago. I’ve overcome a lot. Progress has come from working hard,” the former congresswoman wrote.
“Today, I grieve, I remember, and I take another step. I’m stronger now.”
[Updated, 12:31 p.m. PST Jan. 8: Giffords’ husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, reported that Giffords, in tandem with a fellow skydiver, had landed safely after her parachute jump in Arizona. “So proud of her bravery,” he tweeted. Corrected, 6:45 p.m. PST Jan. 8: An earlier version of this post said 18 people were shot that day. Actually, it was 19.]
Gabby landed beautifully. Happy she’s safe. So proud of her bravery. pic.twitter.com/GTXWP2oNP0— Mark Kelly (@ShuttleCDRKelly) January 8, 2014