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Gabby Giffords’ black SUV rolled through the security blockade and right to the southern entrance of the U.S. Capitol, to be greeted by a former colleague and a half-dozen current and former staffers. After quick hugs and hellos, Giffords leaned on the cane in her left hand, made her way up the slight ramp and then down through the labyrinth of back halls and passages and elevators toward a basement conference room.
It was a homecoming of sorts for the ex-Congresswoman and survivor of an assassination attempt. But she wasn’t there on Wednesday to reminisce. She was there to make the same case she has been making for the last ten years.
“I’m Gabby Giffords. I’m from Tucson, Ariz. Jan. 8, 2011, changed my life forever. I was a Congresswoman. I was shot in my head while meeting with my constituents,” Giffords said as she sat down at a roundtable of current and former lawmakers to discuss the next steps in their work to curb gun violence. “After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I said enough is enough. I founded a group called Giffords. We are on a mission to end gun violence now.”
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The idea of lobbying Congress on gun safety in 2023 might seem like the definition of insanity, after a seemingly never-ending string of heart-breaking mass shootings have failed to move enough lawmakers to advance meaningful measures over the last two decades. Yet few advocates on the issue survived an assassination attempt at point-blank range, or have the unique mixture of warmth and confidence that so clearly came through from Giffords as TIME spent two days with exclusive access to her advocacy.
Six people died in the 2011 attack at a grocery store parking lot where the Congresswoman was having an informal meet-and-greet with constituents. The room where Giffords sat Wednesday afternoon is named in honor of Gabe Zimmerman, Giffords’ aide and the only congressional staffer ever killed in the line of service.
Familiar faces greet her with “You look great!” and “I miss you!” She put her cane aside to fist bump first-term Rep. Greg Landsman, an Ohio Democrat.
Giffords has the gravitas befitting a former member of Congress, a personal story that few—although too many—can match, and a manner that makes saying no to her near impossible. It would be folly to mistake her slow walk for weakness, her sometimes halting speech for confusion about the tasks at hand. From the outside, it would appear she is struggling, but it’s clear in conversations with her and her coterie that she’s never been more clear about the mission.
And amid the bleak state of gun violence in America, the former Congresswoman has a string of successes to point at to give those on her side hope. Giffords, the organization she founded in the wake of the shooting, is a quiet powerhouse that operates well beyond Washington, and has had a hand in passing hundreds of laws at the state level restricting access to firearms. All told, Giffords staffers and volunteers have spent 50,000 hours lobbying in D.C. and 30 states. Yet neither the group, nor its founder, has given up on convincing Congress to act.
“Anyone that knows Gabby Giffords—certainly anyone that knows Gabby Giffords well—isn’t the least bit surprised that after a decade with her sunny, incredibly sunny disposition, the glass-is-half-full approach to life and to any problem, that Giffords has had the success that it’s had,” says Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a self-avowed “bestie” to Giffords. “I watched Gabby pass legislation and win over the coldest hearts. Gabby Giffords’ M.O. was melting the frozen hearts of her potential opponents. People who think they don’t want to do what Gabby wants them to do are very quickly relieved of that belief.”
While so many other advocacy groups are constantly scrambling for cash, Giffords seems to never be in a public-facing fundraising mode despite a $150 million pipeline of donors, and can occasionally cajole Republicans to at least consider a review of their stances on firearms. So effective are her efforts that more than $1 billion in community safety gun grants can trace at least some fingerprints to her group’s lobbying. They secured $75 million in federal research on gun violence, once an unthinkable area of study. More than a half-million individual donors have opened their checkbooks to back the Giffords cause, and the 50-person staff is showing no signs of retreat.
In short, Gabby Giffords is not someone who backs down, is someone who refuses to be silenced, and has no plans on stopping her advocacy for safer communities—with responsible gun limits on the books to stop the maddening cycle of violence that claimed her as yet another statistic. Behind her are 100,000 gun owners who signed up for her Giffords Gun Owners for Safety Coalition: enough is enough, even if there are some disagreements about whether to chase background checks, red-flag laws, or limits on ammunition first.
“In the context of social movements in this country, it’s still just a blink of an eye,” says Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords and a longtime adviser.
So, on Wednesday, as Giffords herself settled into the subterranean room in a conference center attached to the Capitol—the place prepared after the Sept. 11 attacks as a doomsday bunker but publicly described as a visitors’ center—all eyes were on the former Congresswoman. Quietly, in measured and practiced phrases, she said that while plenty of work remains, it is important not to lose sight of their accomplishments.
“You’re just the epitome. You’re the beacon for the gun safety movement as a survivor,” Rep. Lucy McBath, a Missouri Democrat, told Giffords. McBath joined the House in 2018, six years after her son was shot and killed. “You truly understand what this moment requires.”
For her former colleagues and current friends, there’s no one quite like Gabby Giffords. As a lawmaker, she insisted that she wouldn’t introduce any legislation that lacked a Republican co-sponsor, which drew her into some unlikely partnerships with people like Rep. Ted Poe, a hard-right Republican. In short, if any gun violence prevention is going to become law, it’s going to be in large measure because Giffords shoulders them through by appealing to gun owners and gun haters alike. It might not ring pure for ideologues, but it’s a practical way to get things done.
It’s also an ambitious undertaking, for sure. But that’s what it means to be Giffords.
A day before Giffords returned to the Capitol, we sat down at her organization’s headquarters in Washington, a corporate-tinged space a block north of the fabled lobbying K Street corridor. A professional as always, Giffords was ready to make the case that gun laws were getting stricter, lives were being saved, and hope was in the offing during an exclusive interview with TIME. Despite a landscape that seems bleak for anyone who supports limiting the ability to buy and sell guns in this country, Giffords and its allies have been able to pass 525 state-level laws restricting access to firearms over the last decade—nothing to sneeze at in the least. Her youth-organizing program just turned five and has about 75 alumni who continue to work in their local communities. And 460 Giffords-backed candidates have been elected to state or federal office, according to the group’s accounting.
“Inch by inch. Capitals, capitals, capitals,” Giffords says in describing the incremental and far-flung set of goals.
But the reality of her own journey is never far from the minds of those on the receiving end of her advocacy. “I know the darkest of days, days of pain and uncertain recovery. But confronted by despair, confronted by paralysis, aphasia, I responded with grit and determination,” she tells me with confidence and humility all at once on Tuesday. “I put one foot in from the other.”
“I found one word, and then I found another,” she continues. “My recovery is a daily fight, but it makes me stronger. Words once came easily, today I struggle to speak, but I’ve not lost my voice. America needs all of us to speak out, even when you have to fight to find the words.”
She then mentions the other reason we are sitting here: “I’m also in a second fight, the fight to stop gun violence. It’s also a fight forged by tragedy and pain. A fight that can change lives.”
Her work seems to never lose its sense of urgency. Since the start of this year, at least 13,000 people have been killed by guns; more than half have been suicides, accoding to the Gun Violence Archive. All told, there have been 172 separate mass shootings in this country in the first 115 days of this year, including last month’s rampage at a private school in Nashville that left six people dead.
“We need more champions who understand this issue firsthand,” says Rep. Maxwell Frost, who met with Giffords on Wednesday and came to politics as an activist in the March for Our Lives movement that rose from the 2017 Parkland shooting. “We are Generation Lockdown. We are going through more active-shooter drills than fire drills.”
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Giffords’ influence has seldom been greater, even as the work has never been more important. The year 2023 is on pace to be the deadliest yet. Fear of the NRA’s political influence is at such a low that Congress last year was able to pass the first gun control measure in 30 years, a modest change but still a symbolic victory that anti-gun violence advocates will embrace.
The cultural shift has been hard to miss. Even outside of politics, anti-gun violence efforts are no longer viewed as toxic. Giffords threw out the first pitch at a Boston Red Sox game last year and later that day was honored at center-court at a Celtics game where the players donned orange in support for curbing gun violence. “When we started this, those sorts of institutions would have never raised their hand and said, ‘We want to lift up the issue of gun violence and bring to the fore the most prominent advocate for preventing gun violence.’ That would’ve never happened,” Ambler says. “But now, it is happening.”
Her party has also grown more emboldened on the issue since her time in office. The Biden-Harris ticket in 2020 was the most explicitly hostile to free-for-all gun rights that the Democratic Party had ever nominated, and there are no signs it will retreat from that posture in 2024.
“There are a couple outliers, but for the most part, this is an issue that unites the Democratic Party and divides, to a certain extent, Republican voters,” Ambler says.
For Giffords and her team, it’s been a rough decade-plus. Immediately after the attack, Washington heard the crushing report that she hadn’t survived. The attacker had shot 19 people and killed six, including a federal judge, a 9-year-old girl, and a Giffords staffer. (The shooter eventually was sentenced to life in prison.)
Within an hour of the shooting, Giffords was in the operating room, where doctors removed part of her skull to prevent further damage from the swelling. Years of therapy have followed, and Giffords is still on the upswing. Her physical appearance is still coming back from the hellish first years after the shooting. She does not have the use of her right arm, but she can still summon plenty of strength with her left for hugs. She walks with a limp and speaks in quick bursts, the result of working diligently with speech therapists—the same one since 2013—to help her find her voice again. She finds time to ride her bike, practice yoga, study Spanish, and play the French horn. She still has flashes of impatience—mostly with herself—during those other moments where it’s clear she knows what she wants to say, it’s just going to take a minute to get there because of the aphasia.
It’s been quite a turn for Giffords, once a rising star in the Democratic Party who was being groomed for a bigger platform than her border district in the southeast corner of Arizona. The shooting, of course, changed this. She says she has no plans to run for office again. Her husband, Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, holds the Senate seat that had once upon a time been assumed to be hers when the time came. Together, they became the reluctant leaders of this project, and even their biggest critics know better than to call them anti-gun activists. After all, before the assassination attempt, she had bought herself a Glock in the wake of two home robberies. The family still has guns, and Kelly, a former combat pilot and astronaut, is among the most fluent in firearms in the Democratic Party. He has also seen what guns in the wrong hands can do.
As we sat in her organization’s D.C. office, I asked how she could keep taking herself back to Capitol Hill, an area so fraught with difficult emotions—one that must constantly remind her of the role that led to the moment that derailed the trajectory of her life 12 years ago in a grocery store parking lot.
She responds with her trademark Giffords enthusiasm.
“I love it. I love it. So exciting,” she says. “Servant, servant, servant. Grit. Grit.”
Back at the Capitol a day later, Giffords makes her way to her next task as if she never stopped showing up to her first-floor office in Longworth. Giffords is as clear as ever about the work ahead, both for herself and for the movement to which she became the unexpected mother.
She is, even among her political opposites, a beloved survivor—perhaps the country’s best-known one. As she walked into the Capitol on Wednesday, people stood aside to make sure she had complete command of the narrower hallways. Longtime apolitical support staffers made a polite nod to her and aides who worked with her on the Hill. And Capitol Police took their time to make sure she wasn’t rushed through the security checkpoints.
None of this is going to be easy. The Republican-led House, while holding affection for the former colleague, is still holding onto some of the vestiges of the “my-cold-dead-hands” opposition to most limits on gun safety. In the Senate, on the north end of the Capitol campus, there aren’t 10 Republicans who would cross party lines to work with Democrats on most issues, let alone anything that even hints at gun control, and it’s not entirely clear if Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona or Joe Manchin of West Virginia would work with Democrats, either.
Still, Giffords is not going to sit idly by. She has been through too much to turn away from the debate, to retreat to Arizona and leave the work for other people. If she can make a recovery that has been anything but easy, lawmakers can at least hear her out.
As we wrap our interview in her office, I ask how she keeps coming back to a challenge so deeply ingrained in politics. She pauses for 12 pregnant seconds.
“No more guns,” she says.
Ambler, her aide and adviser, tries to clarify that she means no more gun violence, but Giffords is clear about what she’s saying. “No, no, no,” she says. “Lord, no.” She pauses another 32 seconds. “Guns, guns, guns. No more guns. Gone.”
An aide clarifies that she’s talking about Australia, where gun sales were outlawed after a mass shooting and existing weapons were purchased by the government. Giffords nods in the affirmative. It’s an idealistic goal, for sure, and one perhaps mismatched for the moment in this country. But Giffords has an answer for that: “Legislation, legislation, legislation.”
It’s ambitious. But that’s the whole point of working inside Giffords’ orbit. And she is never going to apologize for her fight on something so personal.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org