In gun-violence fight, Giffords is a true profile in courage
Gabrielle Giffords received a Profile in Courage award this weekend at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. The award is fitting, though she is displaying a different kind of courage than was celebrated by the late president in his 1957 best-selling book.
In 2011, the Arizona congresswoman was gravely injured when she was shot in the head by a deranged gunman at a Tucson event, where six people were killed.
Giffords has undergone an excruciating rehabilitation and had to resign her House seat. She is partially blind, largely paralyzed on her right side and struggles to speak.
Yet after the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., last summer, she and her husband, Mark Kelly, began thinking about solutions to the epidemic of gun violence in America. The killing of children in Connecticut in December was the final straw.
In Profiles in Courage, Kennedy wrote about lawmakers who risked their careers by taking principled stands. Giffords, who has left Congress, doesn’t meet that description. Mustering the energy to overcome her condition and become actively engaged in an issue that generates controversy and emotion, however, is a challenge few would undertake.
“It takes real courage to overcome a disability that is so personal,” says Guy Mc-Khann, a leading neurologist at Johns Hopkins University.
Although he hasn’t treated her, he says it was clear that retrieving the right words is difficult for Giffords. “What she wants to say sometimes doesn’t come out,” Mc-
Khann says. (A disclaimer: I am chairman of the Profile in Courage Committee that honored her Sunday and have a son with a brain injury.)
On Jan. 8, the two-year anniversary of the shooting, Giffords and Kelly started Americans for Responsible Solutions. They’ve already raised more than $10 million, enlisted more than 300,000 supporters, aired television ads advocating expanded background checks for gun purchases and campaigned for the measure in a dozen states.
They are perfect for this role. She is a courageous survivor of a gun attack, a former Western member of Congress, a longtime hunter and supporter of gun rights. He is a combat veteran, Navy pilot and space shuttle commander. The National Rifle Association can’t paint them as effete foes of the Second Amendment.
In January, Giffords delivered emotional testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. She and Kelly personally lobbied members. Before last month’s Senate vote on the proposal, she sought out Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, a friend from her House days, and blurted out, “Need,” as in we need you. Unlike his Arizona colleague John McCain, who backed the background checks compromise, Flake voted no. The measure failed; since then, polls show a drop in Flake’s home-state popularity.
The coalition that includes Kelly and Giffords, and working with the White House, is determined to reverse the Senate defeat on background checks. Supporters had a majority of the chamber, but the Republican leadership encouraged a filibuster and the measure fell five votes shy of the 60 needed to proceed.
Giffords and Kelly then bought $350,000 of radio ads in five states, attacking opponents of the measure and praising backers who are likely to face attacks from the NRA next year, such as Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan.
The toughest broadside was directed at Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who was the only New Englander to vote against the measure.
“Remember that ad Kelly Ayotte ran saying she’s one of us?” the Responsible Solutions commercial asks. It goes on to say that Ayotte “went to Washington” and ignored the feelings of New Hampshirites about background checks. The freshman Republican lawmaker, local politicians say, is squirming over this ad and the criticism she encountered at a recent town meeting.
With a few cosmetic changes to the bill, background check strategists hope to pressure Ayotte, Flake and several others to switch their votes and pass the measure. It then faces an uphill battle in the Republican House, but no one could more effectively bring heat on her former colleagues than Giffords.