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Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was critically injured in a 2011 shooting, with her husband, Mark Kelly, at their home in Tucson, Ariz., Feb. 6, 2013. Giffords is settling into the third act of her public life as she shifts to dedicate her career to reducing gun violence.

Monica Almieda, New York Times

In her pain, Giffords is new face of gun control

  • Article by: JENNIFER STEINHAUER
  • New York Times
  • February 9, 2013 - 9:10 PM

TUCSON, ARIZ. - Gabrielle Giffords looked slightly stricken as she considered the question: Would she feel bad about starring in a political advertisement against her former House colleagues who declined to stand with her on guns? "Yes," she said, it would be painful.

"Sometimes you have to do things that are hard," said Mark Kelly, Giffords' husband, as she tucked herself close to him on their couch. Giffords nodded, as she often does when Kelly, as he often does, intuits the many thoughts she is still unable to express fully. "Really hard," she added.

Giffords, a former Democratic congresswoman from Arizona, a gun owner, an astronaut's wife, a shooting survivor and an incipient gun-control advocate, is settling into the third act of her public life.

Her career as a lawmaker is behind her, but so is her role as the fragile, slightly mysterious victim in the months after she was shot point-blank in a Tucson parking lot two years ago. Now, she is the face and emotional dynamism behind a new advocacy group and a separate political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions, dedicated to reducing gun violence. It is an effort, she said, that gives her "purpose."

Speaking in full sentences is still a struggle, and she has regular therapy sessions to help recover her speech and to manage her other impairments. Her vision is impaired, and her right leg and arm are largely paralyzed. She can move her shoulder, her hip and, slightly, her foot.

The rest of Giffords' time is largely spent preparing for the legislative battles, political campaigns and potential faceoffs with friends and former colleagues that will be waged through her month-old organizations. She and Kelly are already looking at governor contests, congressional special elections and 2014 races. They hope to influence the outcome by leveraging the power of their names and their story, an effort presaged last month when Giffords lit up a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with her brief and powerful plea: "We must do something."

"Sometimes there will be some difficult conversations," Kelly said. "There already have been."

Focusing on elections

For nearly two decades, the National Rifle Association has succeeded in rewarding lawmakers who backed legislation supporting gun rights and firearm manufacturers and punishing those who did not. Those efforts largely overwhelmed the voices on the opposing side.

But after the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December that left 20 elementary school pupils dead, Giffords and Kelly -- with several others including Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York -- are trying to sway races from the other side.

Bloomberg's political action committee, Independence USA, was widely credited with bringing an end to the career of Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., last year after it spent $3.3 million on television ads and mailers attacking him. That political action committee is now focusing on Debbie Halvorson, a Democratic former congresswoman who is running in a special election to succeed former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in the Chicago area.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence recently ran newspaper advertisements against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., a freshman who has been critical of President Obama's legislative proposals to curtail some guns and made a video criticizing Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., a strong advocate of gun rights.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group, has run an ad attacking Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, for his positions on guns.

These efforts are "one of the most important things that has happened," said Dr. Garen Wintemute, the director of the violence-prevention research program at the University of California, Davis. "What has been completely missing is the financial counterweight to the NRA."

'Money to be effective'

Giffords' two organizations have already raised millions of dollars from small online donations and from bigger gifts, including a six-figure donation from Bloomberg. The political action committee will hold a fundraiser before the State of the Union address on Tuesday night in Washington.

"We're going to have to have money to be effective," Kelly said.

The paradox of Giffords' role is clear. As a gun owner and a Westerner whose recovery has been watched closely across the nation, she is an effective spokeswoman for some changes to gun laws. Yet speaking is still her hardest task.

Kelly, a retired astronaut and former naval aviator who has emerged as a forceful, politically astute advocate for his wife's cause, fills in the verbal blanks on conference calls and in meetings with donors.

Giffords' liability is in some ways her best asset; her labored speech is a stark reminder that even a member of Congress can be gunned down in broad daylight by someone who is mentally ill and armed with high-capacity weapons.

© 2014 Star Tribune