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 political 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 at a Connecticut school in December was the final straw.
“If we could be effective in trying to come up with a solution, it was our obligation to do so,” Kelly says.
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 McKhann, a leading neurologist at Johns Hopkins University.
Although he hasn’t treated her, he says it was clear that, distinct from cognitive abilities, retrieving the right words is difficult for Giffords. “What she wants to say sometimes doesn’t come out,” McKhann says. (A personal 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 national 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 on the measure 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 of the measure 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, including the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell; and they praised backers, who are likely to face attacks from the NRA next year, such as Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan.
An ad they produced in support of Hagan had the perfect narrator: a North Carolina sheriff named Moose.
The toughest broadside was directed at Senator 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, Granite State politicians say, is squirming over this ad and the criticism she encountered at a recent town meeting.
With a few cosmetic changes to the proposal, background check strategists are counting on pressuring Ayotte, Flake and several other Republicans, as well as a few Democrats, to switch their votes and help pass the measure. It then would face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled House; no one could more effectively bring heat on her former colleagues than Giffords.
Kelly says they’re in it for the long run, and plan to move beyond background checks. “This is a complicated issue,” he says in an interview. “There is not just one reason we have 15 times the murder rates with guns compared to similar countries.”
He acknowledges that the past two and half years have been tough. The outpouring of support around the country has been heartening, he says, while noting that there “has been a real vacuum in Washington to promote public safety and responsible gun ownership.”
Sunday marked an unusually poignant moment in this struggle. Giffords was presented the Profile in Courage Award by Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the president slain a half century ago.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.