Unbidden, Gabby Giffords broke into song.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” she began in a clear voice, a broad smile on her face. It is a favorite hymn, one she was shown playing on her French horn in a clip at the Democratic National Convention last summer. “That saved a wretch like me.”
The former Arizona congresswoman had been talking to USA TODAY about the difficult, momentous year of pandemic and politics, one that ended with the election of her husband, Mark Kelly, to the U.S. Senate seat once held by John McCain.
But she was also talking about the difficult, momentous decade since she was grievously wounded by a gunman at a listening session she was holding outside a Tucson Safeway. On that Saturday morning, six others who had gathered to see her were killed. Their assailant would be sentenced to life in prison.
Friday is the 10th anniversary of the attack that transformed her life and has reverberated through the lives of others.
Gabby Giffords breaks out in song discussing her life 10 years after Tucson shooting
She’ll mark the day as she has before, by remembering those who died, touching base with those who survived, and pressing her efforts for gun violence laws through the advocacy group she heads, Giffords. She plans to join the dedication of the new January 8th Memorial in Tucson’s El Presidio Park, a green space around a reflecting pool, an event being held virtually because of the coronavirus.
“I’m happy and I’m sad,” she said when asked about how she’ll feel on the anniversary. “One, two, three, four, five, six shootings – dead.”
A shadow passed over her face as she remembered the young aide, the federal judge, the 9-year-old girl and the others who were murdered that day. Then she stiffened her posture and collected herself, punching her left hand in the air for emphasis as she repeated her mantra: “Move ahead. Move ahead. Move ahead.”
The past is never far away, of course. An hour or so before her conversation with USA TODAY, conducted over Zoom on Wednesday afternoon, a mob supporting President Donald Trump’s grievances over the election had stormed the Capitol and forced the frantic evacuation of lawmakers from the House and Senate chambers, including Kelly. Giffords had gotten reassurances that he was safe just before the interview.
“Scary,” she said.
After the interview was over, she posted a message on Twitter to her husband. “As I sat waiting for information about @SenMarkKelly’s safety today, I couldn’t stop thinking about what you must have gone through 10 years ago this week,” she tweeted. “I love you, sweetie.”
Almost precisely 10 years since her “Congress on your Corner” event was disrupted by a gunman, the Capitol itself had come under assault. Then, she was an up-and-coming lawmaker and her husband was an astronaut, in Houston as he prepared for a flight to the International Space Station. This time, he was a newly minted senator and she was working from their new D.C. home on the campaign against gun violence that she has adopted as her own.
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She and Kelly founded their advocacy group in 2013, in the wake of the horrific mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Originally called Americans for Responsible Solutions, the organization’s name was changed in 2017 to simply Giffords, a reflection of her signature role on the issue, a recognition of her brand.
“People were calling it ‘Gabby’s Group,'” said Peter Ambler, a former congressional aide who is now executive director. “We decided to cut right to the chase.”
Gabby Giffords is the co-founder, chief spokesperson and lead fundraiser for the group that carries her name. “She sets the tone and sets the strategy,” Ambler said, marked by an effort to recast gun laws as a public-safety issue, not a cultural one, and to reach across partisan lines. The group now claims about two million supporters, 70 staff members, and an annual budget of more than $20 million.
“Every movement needs one or two heroic figures, and Gabby, for us as a movement, is that heroic figure,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has emerged as a central leader against gun violence since the Sandy Hook shooting in his home state. He and Giffords have been friends since both were first elected to the House in 2006 and assigned offices next to one another “in the attic” of the Cannon House Office Building.
Progress in enacting federal laws on gun violence has been excruciatingly slow. Two years ago, the Democratic-controlled House passed legislation to strengthen the federal background check system – in a nod to Giffords, it was introduced on Jan. 8 and numbered H.R. 8 – but the Republican-controlled Senate never took up the bill and Trump had vowed to veto it, anyway.
Now Democrat Joe Biden is poised to be inaugurated as president and the new Senate will be under Democratic control, improving its prospects for passage. That is her top priority for the year, Giffords said.
Patience and persistence, even in the face of setbacks, are qualities she has honed in her own recovery from the bullet that pierced her brain. She has limited use of her right arm and leg; she walks with a limp and uses a cane. Her memory is sharp and her humor intact, but she struggles to speak.
For her videotaped remarks to the Democratic National Convention in August, which lasted about 90 seconds, she practiced and trained with her speech therapist for 130 hours, Ambler estimated.
That said, her use of language this week was more fluent than it had been during a USA TODAY interview with her in 2014, although she still typically responds to a question with just a word or two. Now 50, she seemed more confident and relaxed. She easily recalled the name of a Tucson restaurant she had taken the reporter to more than six years earlier – it was Pizzeria Bianco – and lamented the fact that it has since closed.
The year of COVID-19 has been isolating for her, as for so many others.
“Zoom,” she said when asked about her year, them made the “wah-wah-wah” sound of a sad trombone. “Lot of Zoom. Lot of Zoom. Lot of Zoom.”
She has been taking a virtual yoga class twice a week as well as French horn lessons and Spanish lessons. She rides her recumbent bike whenever she can. “And masks,” she adds, describing 2020. “The masks.”
Show captionHide caption
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., talks with his wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., after participating in a re-enactment of his swearing-in Dec. 2, 2020, by…Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., talks with his wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., after participating in a re-enactment of his swearing-in Dec. 2, 2020, by Vice President Mike Pence in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM, AP, Illustration: USA TODAY Network
With Kelly’s election to the Senate, she now plans to spend about 20% of her time in D.C. and the rest in Arizona. “In Tucson, I’m home; I’m home,” she said, noting her least favorite feature of the East Coast. “Freezing cold. Really cold! Wintertime. Oh, chilly.”
Giffords’ willingness to let people see her struggle is one reason she has been so effective as an advocate, said Patricia Maisch, a constituent who had signed up to speak with her that day 10 years ago. She had grabbed the assailant’s extra ammunition to keep him from reloading his gun. “Watching her progress endears her to a lot of people and helps pull them to the light side,” Maisch, now 71, said in an interview. “She’s opened people’s eyes.”
On Jan. 8, 2011, a gunman killed 6 people and wounded 13 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, at this supermarket outside Tucson. A memorial stands outside the Safeway grocery store.On Jan. 8, 2011, a gunman killed 6 people and wounded 13 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, at this supermarket outside Tucson. A memorial stands outside the Safeway grocery store.LEFT: On Jan. 8, 2011, a gunman killed 6 people and wounded 13 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, at this supermarket outside Tucson. RIGHT: A memorial stands outside the Safeway grocery store.SEAN LOGAN/THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC
After the shooting, the trauma surgeon who treated Giffords and other victims at the University of Arizona medical center that day decided to run for office. “Taking care of one person at a time is certainly very rewarding,” Dr. Randall Friese said in an interview, “but running for office would make it possible for me to transition to care for the community, to address gun violence on a broader scale.” He is now an Arizona state representative.
Daniel Hernandez Jr., now 30, was the congressional intern who was sitting next to Giffords, signing people in. When she was shot, he held up her head and staunched her bleeding until help arrived, steps credited with helping her survive. He had long planned to be a nurse or doctor; afterward, he decided to pursue public policy instead. He now is a member of the Arizona House of Representatives.
The anniversary of the shooting “can get me into kind of a funk,” Hernandez said in an interview, so he turns to a favorite song, the iconic 1963 duet of “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Get Happy” sung by Judy Garland and a young Barbra Streisand.
“I listen to that on a loop all day,” he said – that is, on Jan. 8 each year, the day of the shooting. “It seems like it was just yesterday, but it also feels like it was a lifetime ago.”
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For Giffords, too, her life and her mission were changed that day, but she is not a person generally given to funks. “It will be a long, hard haul, but I’m optimistic,” she said. She pointed to the outcome of Georgia’s Senate runoff elections this week. Two Republican incumbents backed by the NRA lost to Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, who were backed by Giffords and other gun safety groups and now give control of the Senate to Democrats.
“Warnock won!” she said. “Woo!”
USA TODAY launched its Women of the Century coverage last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. We will continue to highlight important women from across the U.S. in 2021.
Unbidden, Gabby Giffords breaks into song during the interview. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” she sings in a clear voice, a smile on her face.
Unbidden, Gabby Giffords broke into song.