“I rode the bike.”
“I rode the bike.”
Gabby Giffords smiles as her iPad chimes. Sentence formed. Way too easy. The smile is magnetic, if slightly crooked: Her dimples burrow a little deeper on the left side. Her left eyebrow is more expressive, while the right looks permanently arched.
Gabby sits at her cozy breakfast table in an aquamarine sweatsuit and Ruth Bader Ginsburg socks that read “I DISSENT.” It’s hour two of speech therapy, and the iPad’s voice recognition helps journal her day. A summerlike day in Tucson, two weeks before Christmas, it began with the ride around her neighborhood on a customized recumbent trike. Gabby’s left leg provides most of the power and all the direction, teaching the left brain with each rotation. Nine years after the gunshot, she can walk on her own with a brace and even managed the 25-mile El Tour de Tucson bike trek last fall.
Gabby’s aphasia, which makes it difficult to form words, is more stubborn. When her skull was shattered, in 2011, the bullet tore a channel straight through her head, out the back, and into a Safeway supermarket. But she caught a peculiar break. The copper-coated round entered an inch above her left eye, traveling straight back through that hemisphere of her brain. If it had crossed to the right, she would probably be dead.
The brain can be miraculously fungible, and Gabby’s began rewiring itself, but most of the language center is on the left. There is only one Broca’s area, where ideas are encoded into words, and the bullet ravaged the area around hers. Gabby’s logic, reasoning, emoting, and most higher functions are intact. She can formulate complex ideas, but she struggles to articulate them.
Fragments. The bulk of Gabby’s speech now.
Noun. Verb. Grimace for inflection, or a Cheshire grin or satisfied nod.
Reading is difficult too, and she has lost 50 percent of peripheral vision in both eyes.
Gabby’s goal at speech therapy this quarter is sentence formation. The first sentence, on bike riding, came so easily, but the next refuses to cooperate. Try, fail, try, fail, try. Gabby erases each mistake from the iPad. Frustration mounts, and she presses the backspace too long, removing the good sentence along with the bad. Argh! She attempts to restate it and those words refuse her too: “I—I went to the bike. I went to—I love the—”
She raises her left hand, the good one, palm forward, smashing it against some invisible barrier. Her jaw clenched, she’s locked in a wrestling match with herself. But the Broca can’t be bullied. Her hand drops, shoulders sag. She turns to her therapist.
Throughout the session, Dr. Fabiane Hirsch, whom everyone calls Fabi, has spoken sparingly. “So think about the action,” she says gently.
Gabby softens, and it pops right out: “I rode the bike.”
“There it is!” the doctor says.
It takes 11 minutes to produce five short sentences. Twenty-five words. They used to come so easily before.
How Gabby yearns for the before days, when she could enchant crowds and rouse jaded colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives, where she was a rising star. In 2008, the New York Times singled her out as one of three young female “dragon slayers” who’d beaten the odds in red districts. She has won every election she’s ever entered and seemed destined for bigger things. “I thought she would be senator, governor, then I thought she would run for president,” says Jen Bluestein, a friend and former staffer who is now managing director of NARAL.
Words used to flow effortlessly. Before.
Before a nine-millimeter round ended her political career—and sparked a new mission to combat gun violence, which may finally bear fruit November 3. As the cofounder of Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, one of the two most significant gun-safety advocacy groups, Gabby is easily the movement’s most visible face and prominent voice. But how can a person who struggles just to speak serve as a spokesperson? Can Gabby function as more than a mascot?
A bleaker question: Does it even matter? Gun safety—Gabby cringes at the term gun control—feels like a lost cause. For a generation, the National Rifle Association has been a political colossus, crushing politicians that defied its commands. No matter the public outcry or the overwhelming polls, politicians genuflected to the NRA.
Gabby considered that scenario in recovery. She sensed opportunity. Liberals bemoan the hopelessness of asymmetrical voting: gun owners vote on guns, gun-safety proponents don’t. But Gabby saw asymmetrical candidates. The NRA mobilizes “Second Amendment warriors.” What did the safety side offer? Background checks? Half measures? Forty years of failure?
Gabby’s mission has been giving people someone to vote for.
Most popular movements target people, and then lobbyists target the legislators. But guns presented a special problem, demanding an intermediate step: coaxing candidates to run on it. For an issue with great polling, that should take care of itself: Self-interested candidates are eager to ride a popular wave. But the NRA is unique in American politics, scrambling the ordinary arithmetic. It had branded “gun control” politically toxic by the mid-1990s, so politicians wouldn’t touch it. After Al Gore’s loss in 2000, it went from toxic to radioactive.
Professor Robert Spitzer is an expert on gun politics and chairs the political science department at the State University of New York College at Cortland. He says the NRA narrative was never accurate. But it maintained a hold on true believers and all three branches of government. In 2009, President Barack Obama enjoyed a 79-seat majority in the House and a filibuster-proof supermajority of 60 in the Senate, yet he proposed zero gun legislation in his first term. The country was trapped in a catch-22: No one would run on gun safety because no one had won on it. And no one would ever win on it until someone proved they could. Breaking that cycle was the whole ball game. Gabby put it right in the name of the organization she founded with her husband, Mark Kelly: “Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence.” Courage. It’s a ballsy name: You can read it as aspirational, but the subtext is accusatory. If courage is the missing element, wouldn’t that make our politicians…cowards?
When she ran for Congress,Gabby would tell audiences her political training began at age eight, when she first learned to shovel horse shit.
Gabby’s task, then, was to amass an army of congresspeople and candidates with the courage to run hard—in red states, in gun country—and win. Impossible, the conventional wisdom said. But Gabby saw it as the only way to break the cycle of defeat.
On November 6, 2018, the impossible happened. Hundreds of candidates for Congress ran on guns. In some key battleground House districts, candidates from both parties supported gun safety. The Democrats flipped the House, and 40 incumbents Giffords Courage had targeted on guns were ejected. Of course there were other factors, but for the first time in decades, exit polls indicated guns as a major issue, with most people voting for gun safety. The best evidence of a sea change came two days later, when returning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a consummate interpreter of the political winds, announced that she would put all her members on record for gun safety, force her adversaries to vote against it, then bash them with it in 2020.
All that didn’t just happen. It was the penultimate step in a five-part program Giffords Courage developed seven years ago. Gabby expected it to take several election cycles, and the big hurdle actually came in 2016. From the outside, it looked like the NRA was still steamrolling, but legislative victories are lagging indicators. Gabby saw the plan succeeding, and the battleground shifting below the NRA, which ended 2018 in disarray.
The last big step in the Giffords Courage plan is set to play out on November 3. COVID-19 knocked Gabby off the trail, and it threatens to squeeze every other issue out of the conversation. But the seeds Gabby planted are bearing fruit. Last fall, Joe Biden announced a sweeping agenda on guns that would have been ridiculed as political suicide 13 months earlier. Among its three dozen initiatives are bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, new regulations on those already in circulation, and a voluntary buy-back program. It limits gun purchases to one a month, incentivizes states to pass red-flag and gun-licensing laws, moves toward biometric requirements on all future guns, and repeals a law protecting gun manufacturers that Biden himself helped pass 15 years ago. It also highlights community-based programs to reduce urban violence—which draw scant media attention, despite overwhelming data demonstrating their effectiveness. Biden’s plan dwarfs anything proposed by any Democratic presidential nominee, ever.
“If we beat Donald Trump and if we pick up three seats in the Senate, then we’re putting Gabby Giffords in the Rose Garden standing next to Joe Biden,” Giffords Courage executive director Peter Ambler says. Biden’s plan would take its place beside legislation passed in the 1930s and 1960s as the third major gun reform in American history.
But the Giffords Courage goal is even more audacious. “We need to fundamentally win the political argument with the gun lobby,” Ambler says. “Push the NRA into the margins of American society where they belong.”
Gabrielle Giffords was born June 8, 1970, just outside Tucson, on the edge of the vast, unforgiving Sonoran Desert. She grew up on horseback, inseparable from Buckstretcher, her trusty Appaloosa. She dressed in leather jackets and Doc Martens and had an angelic smile and tousled chestnut hair that looked far too luxurious for a second grader mucking out the manure at Bel Air Stables.
She competed in hunter-jumper competitions, prodding half-ton stallions to leap solid barriers. “My heart rose and flew with every jump,” says Gloria Giffords, Gabby’s mom. Gabby tried to bring her horse to Cornell, then took up racing motorcycles. When she ran for Congress, she would tell audiences her political training began at age eight, when she first learned to shovel horse shit.
Gabby was born with an insatiable curiosity about what made people tick. In grade school, she volunteered to teach in a Spanish-English exchange program. “I thought it was normal to grow up in a house filled with people from different cultures and different places,” she told audiences later. She spent a semester in Spain in high school, and later a year in Chihuahua, Mexico, as a Fulbright Scholar.
“Gabby was always the adventurer,” her mom says. No one was surprised when she married an astronaut. When she started dating Mark Kelly, he had already witnessed an earthrise. He had piloted the space shuttle Endeavour, and would later pilot and then command missions on Discovery. She married Kelly in a borrowed Vera Wang dress, on a working Arizona farm. The reception featured freshly made tortillas, a mariachi band, and a military saber arch.
She landed a fast-track consulting job for Price Waterhouse in Manhattan, but in 1996 she drove her Ford F-150 pickup back to Tucson to take over the family business, a chain of 11 discount tire stores called El Campo Tire & Service Centers. She’d pitch in changing tires and see how brutal the searing Tucson pavement was on tread. She said reading a tire taught her how to read legislation later: Identify the weak spots. In 2007, she told Tire Business she honed her hiring philosophy in her shops: Find smart people who aren’t afraid to contradict you. Staff an echo chamber and “you aren’t going to get very far,” she said.
In Tucson, Gabby surrounded herself with a colorful menagerie of friends. Brad Holland looks like a young Dr. John, with his three-inch goatee and gold hoop earrings. He’s a lounge singer turned prosecutor who runs an offbeat compound of apartments clustered around a community garden with blooming fig trees, chicken coops, and a man-nequin Venus de Milo draped in Mardi Gras beads. His friends call it Bradlandia. It beat anything Gabby had encountered in Greenwich Village, and she moved in. Gabby would sing duets with Brad on a Steinway concert grand piano that George Gershwin and Cole Porter had played. “I had a 750-square-foot apartment and 400 square feet of a piano,” Brad says. “We’d wear muumuus and our jammies and our furry slippers—muumuus are the official uniform of Bradlandia.”
Eventually Gabby sold the company to Goodyear and turned her attention from studying people to trying to help them. She was elected to the Arizona House and then, at 32, became the youngest woman to serve in the state senate. She had her eye on Congress, but she was still too young and green. Worse, she was a Democrat in a district that was reliably red. Representative Jim Kolbe, who’d held the seat for more than two decades, had won his last reelection by 30 points and showed no sign of retiring. But then, in 2006, he did. The leap felt premature, but openings like that are rare, so she jumped in. She beat a prominent TV newscaster for the nomination and then trounced a conservative immigration hawk by 12 points in the general.
On January 3, 2007, she was sworn in to Congress, the only woman in Arizona’s 10-member delegation and just the third in its history. She ran and legislated as a moderate, pro-business Democrat and rarely mentioned guns. She respected the Second Amendment and enjoyed exercising it. She has long kept a Glock in a safe at her house in Tucson, where the walls are hung with paintings of cowgirls and cowboys on horseback.
Joe Biden worked closely with the Giffords Courage team on his gun-safety agenda. He unveiled it in Las Vegas last October at the Gun Safety Forum, organized by Giffords Courage and March for Our Lives, the organization founded by the survivors of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Biden has embraced most of the measures spelled out in the MFOL Peace Plan, including urban-violence intervention programs, which were a big focus of the Vegas forum.
A major hurdle for the safety movement is correcting the gross misconception of America’s gun-violence problem. Mass shootings are horrific but account for a minute fraction of the carnage. Two thirds of gun deaths are suicides. The vast majority of the remainder are urban homicides. Black men account for 6 percent of the U.S. population and 52 percent of gun-homicide victims. Black Americans are 10 times more likely than whites to be killed with a gun.
Most gun suicides are impulsive acts, so anything that blocks instantaneous access to a weapon helps, including waiting periods, biometric safety locks, red-flag laws, and mental-health restrictions on permits. The key to slashing urban homicides is breaking the cycle of violence. After Parkland, the MFOL kids partnered with Chicago’s young Peace Warriors, who call themselves “violence interrupters.” “If two students are engaging in horseplay and then begin showing verbal aggression, our peace warriors immediately step in,” executive director D’Angelo McDade told me, “mediating that situation to make sure that conflict does not rise to a pervasive or worse problem.”
Once gunfire erupts, it tends to cycle up quickly, with escalating rounds of payback. But community-based teams have discovered a prime venue for staging interruptions: the emergency room. There is a brief window after a shooting to mediate a solution between rival gangs, who typically want to avoid going to war. It is also the moment the wounded young man is most inclined to rethink his relationship with gun violence. Hospital-based violence intervention, as the strategy is known, has proven wildly successful. Programs in several states have slashed homicides by as much as 60 percent.
In January, four months before the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide protests that followed, Giffords Courage issued a 92-page report called “In Pursuit of Peace: Building Police-Community Trust to Break the Cycle of Violence,” a rigorous analysis and prescription for change, highlighting case studies of Camden, New Jersey, and Oakland, California, where community-led efforts significantly lowered gun violence. “The lack of trust between communities and law enforcement is a major driver of gun violence in America’s cities,” it said. It attributed some of the spike in urban gun violence between 2014 and 2017 to a reaction to police violence and growing distrust of law enforcement. When communities perceive unequal treatment, “they are less likely to report shootings, cooperate with the police, and serve as witnesses,” it said.
David Kennedy puts it more bluntly. He is director of the National Network for Safe Communities, whose research was cited throughout the report. “Everybody has largely missed the fact that if people can’t count on help from the state and its agents, they’re going to take care of themselves,” he says. “Sometimes taking care of yourself looks like day-to-day gun violence.”
Hospital interventions pull cops out of the equation, shifting that role to people like pastors, social service workers, and neighborhood moms. And they don’t impede anyone’s gun rights. The only obstacle is funding. Giffords Courage had been touting the overwhelming evidence for hospital programs, but it’s been tough to get traction with white audiences.
Biden’s plan, the most ambitious of any primary candidate, calls for an unprecedented $900 million, eight-year initiative to expand these programs into the 40 cities with the worst homicide problems.
I met Gabby backstage for the first time in Las Vegas, minutes before she opened the forum. Her fragmented speech was the second thing I noticed. The first was the way she uses eye contact. Once she locked in, it was hard to look away.
She laughs frequently, with her whole body, shoulders swooping forward, blond curls bouncing. When she’s skeptical, her shoulders roll back and her head tilts: Really? Explain.
Gabby asked to keep the skull fragments as a memento of where she’s been. They’re still in the back of her freezer, surrounded by leftovers.
Gabby is relentlessly curious and not shy about drawing conclusions. “She has strong opinions about everybody’s relationships and about my propensity for wearing dark clothes,” Bluestein says. “She can be kind of a yenta.” She’ll fix your collar for a photo or squeeze your hand when you wander into emotional territory, or she does. There’s no glossing over sensitive topics: Her eyes lock on and demand more. Small talk collapses to intimacy on first contact. Beto O’Rourke was treated like a rock star at the forum, with young activists literally squealing when he stepped backstage. His look was impeccable, almost, but Gabby reached in to tweak a stray lock of his salt-and-pepper hair. He blushed like a schoolboy, and his chin dipped.
When I first met her, she went right in for a hug, clenched my upper arm, and said, “Strong!” I chuckled, a touch embarrassed, and tried to brush it off. She pulled back, reestablished eye contact, squeezed again, and repeated more insistently: “Strong!”
Gay, I was tempted to say. Body issues. Overcompensating. Because that’s what she was asking: “Why the gym obsession? Something’s going on here.” Seconds in, she didn’t know what the story was, but her instincts said there was a story. She was going to get it out of me, and by our next meeting, she did. Listening is a skill, but eliciting is an art form.
Representative Adam Smith says listening was always the source of Gabby’s power. Her speeches connected because of the curiosity that informed them. Smith served with Gabby on the Armed Services Committee, and as chairman of the terrorism subcommittee he oversaw congressional delegations to some of the nastiest spots on the planet. Most members avoided these “CoDels” at all costs, but “Gabby was relentless about going,” Smith says. “She was the one who organized most of them.” And she altered them.
“All our male colleagues were talking about how many ships we were going to build and how many aircraft and all about equipment,” says Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who served on the committee while still in the House. “Gabby and I really focused on the personnel.” Gabby was concerned about PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
Jimmy Hatch was a Navy SEAL senior chief in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and had no time for CoDel bullshit. A bunch of old men gawking at lasers, explosives, and Star Wars toys—and angling for contracts to manufacture them in their home districts. “I was kind of pissed off,” Hatch says. “So she came in, and I was shocked at her down-to-earth-ness. Some of the questions she was asking were—truthfully, they were very feminine, and thus welcome. ‘How are you guys doing? How are you living? How’s things?’ ” She asked about the mission too—sharp questions about the enemy and readiness—but her first concern was the welfare of the troops.
On January 5, 2011, Speaker of the House John Boehner swore Gabby in for her third term. Three days later, her new life would begin.
The Tucson sun scorches in August, but in winter it’s a delight. It was 50 degrees when Gabby pulled up at 9:57 a.m., jet-lagged from her swearing-in trip, for a “Congress on Your Corner” event. The setup was basic: a table from her office, 10 comfy chairs, a banner, rope and guideposts, and U.S. and Arizona flags. The fanciest touch was the Italianate awning sheltering the entrance to Safeway No. 1255. It was an upscale Lifestyle Store, boasting a fragrant entrance bursting with daffodils and roses labeled “POETRY IN BLOOM.” Nearby was a “Gun Collection” machine where kids could insert a quarter for a chance at winning a metal key-chain pistol. The logo depicted a gun barrel pointed at them while they played.
Gabby was dressed smartly: a simple red blazer and red beaded necklace over a black blouse and skirt. She wore light makeup and didn’t fuss too much with her hair, which was a bit unruly that day. As usual, she’d drawn an eclectic crowd. This morning, it included a federal judge, a retired Army colonel named Bill Badger, and a nine-year-old girl named Christina Taylor-Green, eager to learn about politics from the most successful woman in the state.
Selfies weren’t a thing yet, so a professional snapped photos of Gabby with her constituents. An Army reservist, back from a tour in Afghanistan, reached out to show Gabby his mili-tary commendation, and the photographer caught his sheepish reaction to Gabby’s beaming smile. Behind him, in the photo, are the American flag and a ghostly arrangement of shadows in the storefront glass. It’s one of the final records of Gabby’s old life. Before.
At 10:10 a.m., 20 people waited in line. A constituent later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia thrust forward. He wore earplugs and a gray hoodie that matched the color he had painted his Glock Safe Action pistol. It looked so small, the photographer remembered—almost swallowed up in his hand. The man raised the pistol to Gabby’s head. It took the round one twenty-thousandth of a second to traverse the three feet to Gabby’s skull, shattering it front and back in an instant and spattering brain matter on the warm cement walkway.
The gunman—his name largely forgotten, as it should be—left a lengthy paper trail documenting his obsession with Gabby. He had purchased the Glock shortly after Thanksgiving, at a nearby Sportsman’s Warehouse store. Though he would initially be found mentally unfit to stand trial, he passed a background check. Six weeks later, he struck.
Gabby collapsed, presumed dead. Then the shooter turned his fire on the crowd. In 15 seconds, he shot 19 people, killing 6, including the judge, the little girl, and Gabby’s longtime staffer Gabriel Zimmerman, who had helped organize the event.
The Glock’s extended magazine gave the perp up to 33 rounds before he needed to reload. Extended magazines had been outlawed by the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, but Republicans in Congress blocked the law’s reauthorization in 2004. Seven years later, Gabby’s assassin purchased one at the local Walmart.
There was an eerie silence as he swapped out the magazines, and three people leaped up. Someone slammed a chair into the shooter’s head, and then retired colonel Bill Badger and another man lunged at him from opposite sides. Badger was 74 and dazed from a shot to the head, which hadn’t penetrated his skull. The three men fell to the pavement, and the loaded magazine skittered across the ground. The gunman groped for it, but 61-year-old Patricia Maisch hopped up and snatched it away. They all held him down, while a wounded man grabbed the pistol.
Then, a good guy with a gun appeared, as prophesied in the NRA rallying cry: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” Joseph Zamudio heard the shots and screams from the Walgreens next door. He rushed out, his Ruger P95 pistol drawn. Five months earlier, Arizona’s concealed carry law had gone into effect, enabling would-be good guys to pack invisible heat without a permit. Zamudio spotted the armed man easily, freed the safety on his Ruger, pressed his finger to the trigger, and prepared to fire. He almost took the shot, he said later, but something seemed slightly off: The Glock’s slide was back, rendering it temporarily disabled.
It’s a good thing he had such a keen eye for detail. Zamudio was aiming not at the shooter but at the victim who had recovered the gun. Badger yelled out to the injured man to drop the Glock: “Somebody’s going to kill you!”
The man complied. He held his foot over the Glock, and the others subdued the gunman until police arrived.
Gabby’s prognosis was bleak. Doctors induced a coma, unsure if she would ever come out. Six days out, her husband, Mark Kelly, sat vigil beside her bed with Pelosi and two of her best friends in Congress, Gillibrand and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
“She had yet to open her eyes, and nobody knew that she would survive,” Gillibrand tells me. “She had tubes in her throat; they didn’t know if she would ever speak again, ever walk again, ever be able to do anything she does today. All of a sudden, her eyes started to flutter. And Mark immediately went to her side and said, ‘Gabby! Can you hear me? Can you hear me?’ And she was able to move her thumb just millimeters in a semi thumbs-up. And you have no idea the joy in that room. She understood the words of her husband. I hear you. I can see. It was shocking.”
President Obama came to Tucson with Michelle for a national memorial service that day, and visited Gabby. They were taken aback by the news, and the president announced it to a huge national audience at the memorial: “Gabby opened her eyes! Gabby opened her eyes!”
But nearly a month after the shooting, Gabby still hadn’t spoken. Every day, the odds she ever would sank. Her friend Brad Holland borrowed an electric piano from her music therapist. “This nasty-ass little Casio, three DD batteries,” he says. She had a favorite duet she joined him on at Bradlandia, so he tried it on the Casio. “I went, ‘Okay, girlfriend,’ ” he said, “and sang, ‘I can’t give you anything but love.…’ ”
He held his breath, and it wafted right out of her: “Baby.”
“Her first word!” Brad says. “And then I went, ‘Holy fuck.’ And the big nurse in the corner collapsed against the wall and went, ‘Praise Jesus!’ And I went, ‘Shit fuck shit fuck, I’ve gotta keep her going.’ Behind her eyes, it was as if you could see her files downloading. We did ‘Happy Birthday,’ and ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’ We sang and played together for 40 minutes, and then she was exhausted so she collapsed. And the next morning she got up and she talked.”
Brad is a colorful storyteller, and that yarn bobbed along for 10 minutes over brunch at their favorite diner last December, including the setup story about Bradlandia. Periodically, Gabby would reel him back with one-word interjections—piano, muumuu, chickens—and he responded to each cue. Brad performed the story; Gabby conducted.
Gabby was warned that the first year or two of recovery would be brutal, but what followed could be even harder psychologically: the plateau. Minor gains would require grueling, relentless, mind-numbing effort. Gabby scoffs at the thought of giving up. They said gun safety was impossible too.
Doctors removed almost half of Gabby’s skull to relieve the pressure from fluid leaking, a major cause of brain damage. They kept the large bone fragments alive so they could re-implant them, only to wind up using synthetic bone for her reconstructive surgery. Gabby asked to keep the skull fragments as a memento of where she’s been. They’re still in the back of her freezer in a Tupperware container, surrounded by leftovers.
At first, Gabby was determined to return to Congress. And she did, briefly. After a year of punishing therapy, she could still speak only haltingly and could barely move the right side of her body. A drain was inserted to divert excess brain fluid, and she will never recover the lost vision. She had years of recovery ahead, and she could not do the job the way she intended. On January 25, 2012, just over a year after the shooting, she appeared on the floor of the House to vote on an anti-drug-smuggling bill she had coauthored—and to submit her resignation. Boehner wept as she submitted her letter of resignation, and the standing ovation was deafening on both sides of the aisle.
Gabby spent 2012 focused on recovery. “The bullet cut through really important real estate, but it didn’t touch her sense of humor,” Brad says. “Or her sense of joy. She has a giggly prankster personality.” Then, on December 14, the mass-shooter era hit a new low. A 20-year-old man with a history of mental disorders killed his mother and then attacked Sandy Hook Elementary School. He murdered six faculty members and 20 little kids in their first-grade classrooms.
After ignoring gun legislation in his first term, Obama vowed to make it central to his second, promising to give “everything I’ve got.” Hope soared. He appointed Biden to lead a task force. Gun legislation had failed after Columbine, and again after Virginia Tech, but traction had seemed to be building, and the horror of dead six- and seven-year-olds seemed more potent than a Senate filibuster.
It was not. Five weeks out, Obama announced a modest package of nine executive orders and four pieces of legislation, including expanded background checks, along with bans on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and armor-piercing bullets. But the outrage had already cooled. Despite several bipartisan compromises, all the proposed bills died in the Senate. Even the modest Manchin-Toomey Amendment, a bipartisan proposal to expand background checks to Internet and gun-show sales, failed. Four Republicans crossed over to vote for it, but five Democrats crossed the other way.
There’s a mythology about the Sandy Hook aftermath. Call it the Hodges Doctrine. In 2015, after yet another mass shooting, pundit Dan Hodges tweeted: “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”
The observation wasn’t original, but it crystallized the conventional wisdom. “It goes viral after every mass shooting,” Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts says. “And people retweet it and they say, ‘This is so true!’ ”
It’s not. But it’s become the liberal answer to the do-nothing conservative refrain of “thoughts and prayers.”
“That makes me so mad,” Watts says. The day Sandy Hook rocked America, the NRA had Congress in its pocket and the Obama administration in check. “We had no political movement that could go toe-to-toe with them,” Watts says. “That has to be built.”
It was one day after Sandy Hook that Watts started a Facebook group that evolved into Moms Demand Action, which later merged with Mike Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns to form Everytown for Gun Safety. Sandy Hook also inspired Gabby and Kelly in 2013 to create the organization that would evolve into Giffords Courage.
Today, the NRA has two major adversaries, neither of which existed seven years ago. The Hodges Doctrine has it backward: Sandy Hook was the birth of the modern gun-safety movement.
Before founding Giffords Courage, Gabby quietly met with members of Congress, frequently accompanied by Peter Ambler and Kelly. Ambler says they would walk into Senate offices and hear, “I admire what you’re doing, but this is just too hard for me politically. The NRA is just too powerful; the politics are too tough.” Ambler says John McCain told them he agreed with much of their agenda, “but he felt like our reward would be in heaven.”
That’s when Gabby, Kelly, and Ambler reached their key insight. The senators were right: The NRA was too powerful. No matter how grave the horror or fierce the public outcry, the politicians would ignore it until someone proved it was safe to vote their conscience, here on earth. They were sure candidates could win on guns. The problem was getting them to run on it.
Ambler summarizes the core Giffords Courage philosophy: “We can’t just elect the right people to office. They have to be elected because of, not in spite of, their support for gun safety. When we look at people seeking our endorsement, it’s not just: ‘Do you agree with us on the policy?’ It’s: ‘Are you making this part of your campaign and part of your fundamental case to voters?’ What you need is a president, a Congress, state legislatures, governors, mayors, etcetera, who have a popular mandate from voters to act on gun safety. And the only way you get a popular mandate is to talk about the issue. And then of course to win.”
Everytown and Giffords Courage both grew into political powerhouses, with Everytown’s army of moms providing the ground force and Giffords organizing the inside game.
The Giffords Courage team devised a five-stage plan to pass the sort of landmark legislation Biden has finally proposed: (1) Put some legislative wins on the board; (2) devise a winning message; (3) prove it out in key test elections; (4) coax candidates to run on gun safety in numbers that would overwhelm NRA resources; (5) take the House, Senate, and White House, all with a mandate for change.
Small victories are won in state capitals, so that’s where the early battles were fought. The NRA was on the move, chipping away at longtime gun regulations, working state by state with model legislation to allow concealed weapons and create new “stand your ground” laws that expand the self-defense concept to permit civilians to use lethal force against perceived threats. Florida police said the law kept them from charging and arresting George Zimmerman for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager, in 2012. Zimmerman was finally arrested after a public outcry, only to be acquitted under the self-defense statute. Georgia police used the same reasoning this spring when they waited 10 weeks before arresting two men in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, another unarmed Black man. It took another two weeks to arrest a third man for blocking his escape. All three have since been charged and have pleaded not guilty.
At first, the state battles felt futile, as the NRA kept racking up wins. But the safety movement was gaining intel for the next stage: testing messages while rapidly building the infrastructure to compete. This meant funding sources, volunteers, lobbyists, lawyers, policy wonks, communications people, market testers.
Getting the message right was essential. Gabby had the instincts, because she grew up in the heart of gun country. She gets the NRA demo because she is that demo. They pitched ideas, hashed them out with candidates, and then tested the hell out of them. “That’s why we poll before we advertise; that’s why we poll after we advertise,” Ambler says.
The first thing to go was the movement’s self-defeating name. “Gun control” might as well have been designed in a lab to alarm gun-rights zealots. Worse, it perpetuates the concept of a zero-sum game, where every increase in control begets an equal loss of rights. It casts Gabby’s side as freedom haters intent on snatching up all the gun rights—even if those “rights” were just invented by the NRA. Giffords Courage advises candidates to emphasize the values of safety and responsibility. Freedom too, with the caveat that with freedom comes responsibility. Elizabeth Warren speaks that message naturally. At the Giffords gun forum last fall, she said, “I grew up in a family with guns. All three of my brothers have guns. My brothers did some hunting and shooting behind our house. I mean, it was mostly squirrels and rabbits, but that’s what they did. But that’s not gun violence.” The signal was clear, to both sides: Your guns are safe. I’m not here to control or even reform them—just the violence.
In 2016, Giffords Courage proceeded to stage three: convincing test elections. Ambler calls it “proof of concept.” They needed a smart, strong candidate to run on guns, take on the NRA, and win. And they had to do it in gun country. While the nation focused on Clinton versus Trump, Giffords went hard in New Hampshire. Republican Kelly Ayotte was favored to hold her Senate seat, but not overwhelmingly. If they could take her out in the rural “Live Free or Die” state, that would turn heads. The Giffords team huddled with Democratic governor Maggie Hassan, who was eager to test her D rating with the NRA against Ayotte. Giffords hammered Ayotte with nearly $1.5 million in ads, and two months before election day the New York Times reported that she had “scrambled” to tack left and soften her pro-gun positions. Hassan won, even as her party lost the presidency and picked up just one other vulnerable Senate seat.
Defeating Ayotte was a defining moment for Giffords Courage, Ambler says. “We were able to show, three years after she sided with the NRA and voted against expanded background checks, that there was a political cost to voting against safer gun laws—even in a purple, gun-owning state like New Hampshire. We weren’t just ‘right’ on the issue; gun safety was a winning issue.”
Heading into 2018, Giffords Courage felt the political winds were finally favorable enough to proceed to stage four, in which a phalanx of candidates would run aggressively on guns. They were deep into the vetting phase when Parkland happened. On Valentine’s Day, a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others. The shooting was tragically familiar, but the survivors’ response was new. A group of savvy students organized the March for Our Lives, which energized millions of high school and college students, an uprising that captivated the nation.
Giffords Courage had targeted 2018 as the year to go wide. The Parkland uprising was rocket fuel.
Moms Demand Action created Students Demand Action, which has chapters at 400 high schools and colleges. That’s in addition to MFOL’s 300 school chapters. Watts says Moms Demand Action tripled its membership that year, to more than 6 million. Suddenly, it was larger than the NRA. “Americans realized they needed to get off the sidelines,” Watts says. “We immediately took that newfound size and translated it into political power.”
The NRA got pummeled in the midterms. Democrats flipped the House and picked up 40 seats—their best showing in a congressional election since the post-Watergate landslide of 1974. The party also flipped 349 state legislative seats, six state legislative chambers, and seven governorships, most in large battleground states. Those would be crucial to the big redistricting fights ahead, following the 2020 census.
Frustration with Donald Trump’s shambolic presidency was undoubtedly the big force behind the blue wave. But people on both sides of the gun debate were finally voting on the issue. CNN’s exit poll showed that gun control was the fourth most important voter issue, after health care, immigration, and the economy. The NBC exits found that 60 percent of voters favored stronger gun laws, including a startling 42 percent of gun owners.
And the state legislatures, consistently on the forefront on guns, felt the wave rising and collectively reversed course. After decades of NRA dominance, states passed only nine pro-gun laws last year—and an unprecedented 67 gun-safety bills.
The NRA’s aura of invincibility was shattered, Spitzer says. “It had this reputation, if they target you for defeat, that (a) they’ll make your life miserable, and (b) they’ll probably succeed.” That narrative held until 2018, he said, with the political class treating gun safety as a third rail. “It’s no longer a third rail,” Spitzer says. “It’s been deactivated, de-electrified.”
NRA fundraising has sputtered, and it finished 2018 $36 million in the red. The organization has been plagued by reports of lavish spending and profiteering by executives. A bitter power struggle between its president, Oliver North, and executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, resulted in North’s ouster last year, followed by the resignation of eight board members and sweeping layoffs.
The harshest blow came on August 6, when New York attorney general Letitia James announced a civil suit seeking to dissolve the organization. “The NRA is fraught with fraud and abuse,” she said, charging that “top executives funneled millions into their own pockets.” Because the NRA is chartered in New York, the state could potentially shut it down.
After Gabby wowed the SEAL team in Kandahar, in 2008, Jimmy Hatch invited her to skydive with them at their training facility outside Tucson. He was stunned when she accepted, and surprised each step of the way. “I thought, Okay, she’s going to come in with a posse,” he told me. “She showed up by herself, wearing a sweatshirt, a pair of jeans.” First-timers tend to lose their shit when they board the plane, he said. Gabby was chatty, asking about the crew so she could thank them later.
The following year, Hatch was seriously injured leading a mission to rescue the American POW Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban. Gabby visited him in the hospital and told him she was heading back to see his SEAL team in Afghanistan. He gave her the names of four guys who had saved his life on the operation and asked her for a big favor. “She didn’t write anything down,” he says. “She went over there and I didn’t hear from her about it, but my buddy called me and was like, ‘Jimmy, what’d you tell Gabby?’ She got off the plane, walked past all the high-ranking people, walked over to the guys in our crew, and said, ‘Hey, who’s so-and-so?’ Gave them a hug. ‘Who’s so-and-so?’ Gave him a hug.” Only after she’d found and greeted all four did she go inside for the Q&A.
Gabby has always been a magnet for service members and veterans. That’s been a powerful, unforeseen asset in her new mission. “We organize the people that haven’t historically been part of the gun violence prevention movement,” Ambler says. Gabby has personally recruited a growing cadre of veterans and law enforcement officers to run on gun safety—candidates with the credibility to reach gun owners. And she has enlisted high-profile generals, including Stanley McChrystal, Russel Honoré, and Michael Vincent Hayden, for a series of video testimonials. “They are essential to beating the NRA once and for all,” Ambler says. Left versus right takes you back to square one. “We also need to own the center. That’s how you create generational change. That’s how you foundationally shift our politics.”
One step remains in the Giffords Courage five-stage program. Gabby couldn’t make the 2020 election about gun safety. A presidential nominee could. This election will be decided by COVID-19, but by going so big on guns, Biden has all but ensured that a victory for his ticket will usher in historic change. And that dynamic was cemented in 2019. The October Gun Safety Forum was Giffords’s pivotal event. “We literally built a stage for the candidates to get on and talk about gun violence,” Ambler says.
The forum drew a lot of media coverage, but most of the real work happened in advance: putting the candidates on notice and giving them a deadline to formulate a gun-safety agenda. Most of the heavy lifting came in the spring of 2019, when major candidates kept one-upping each other with the most aggressive plan. Senator Kamala Harris was first out of the gate, announcing in April that she’d take executive actions to tighten regulations on manufacturers, expand background checks, and close the “boyfriend loophole” if Congress didn’t act in the first 100 days of her presidency. Biden released his plan the day of the event.
All 10 leading Democratic candidates agreed to address the forum, though Senator Bernie Sanders had a heart attack the night before and called in sick. Gabby had a grueling schedule, meeting with each candidate individually and making several appearances onstage, including a 41-second opening speech. I spent all day with her, and there were no official breaks, just a moment or two when she could wolf down a coffee or a bite. Every time she had a free moment, she repeated the same two sentences, fighting for every word: “Gun violence is now a kitchen-table issue for millions. How do you talk about gun violence at your kitchen table?” It was a question she would pose to Biden from the audience, during his 30-minute discussion with host Craig Melvin, broadcast live on MSNBC.
Gabby nailed the question. Biden fumbled the answer. He meandered, backtracked, and tripped over preambles for a full minute before even addressing it, and then: “The way I talk to my grandchildren about it. My two granddaughters are—I have four granddaughters for dinner last night at my house in Delaware. My fifth granddaughter, excuse me—yeah, I had three granddaughters, my fourth one. I have five grandchildren. My oldest one… ”
It was painful to watch. The crowd was revved at his opening, and you could feel the air deflate. But near the end of his 30 minutes, he found his footing: “If you’re duck hunting, hunting for Canadian geese, you cannot have a shotgun with more than three shells,” he said. “We protect ducks and geese better than we protect people.”
The audience howled and the energy returned to the room, at least for a few moments.
Biden’s bumbling is not unique to this issue, but it was painfully clear how long it had been since he’d led on guns. He’s come a long way in the intervening year. Ambler says the key is that this movement has been led by survivors of gun violence, and Biden’s history of painful losses gives him a deep well of empathy to draw from.
COVID-19 scuttled Gabby’s 2020 plans to hit the road hard in every state that could decide the presidency and control of the Senate. But lockdown also presented an opportunity. In February, in the lull before the nomination, she had begun work on a speech. When the pandemic hit, Gabby hatched a new plan: She would master a speech—the longest she’d attempted since the Safeway shooting—to deliver at the Democratic National Convention. Pulling it off would require three two-hour speech-therapy sessions a week, plus homework every day, for six full months. She hoped to deliver it from a Milwaukee stage, but when the convention went virtual, she prerecorded it.
The organization regrouped too.
Giffords Courage continued working with campaigns on messaging, and Gabby did a series of virtual events with Senate candidates from eight states, mostly in gun country. She’s been most active in the Arizona race, where her husband, Mark Kelly, is fighting to unseat Republican senator Martha McSally. Kelly held a razor-thin lead last fall and widened it considerably over the summer. Gabby has been highly visible in his online campaign and has joined him in a series of Instagram videos. The Supreme Court vacancy suddenly gave his race special significance: Because it’s a special election, Kelly would be seated as soon as results are certified, and could vote in a lame-duck session. A single vote could head off a six-to-three conservative majority with the power to nullify elements of the Giffords Courage agenda.
All the mini speeches complicated work on the big one, but Fabi says Gabby keeps them all loaded in her head like DVR episodes. Just cue her with the first few words and she can take it from there.
The first two nights of the Democratic National Convention were all about Trump and his failures, but Wednesday’s broadcast dove deep into policy: climate change, border policy, and gun safety. After inspiring video of teenagers marching and Emma González chanting, “We call BS!,” it was time for Gabby’s speech.
An opening montage shows Gabby raising two fingers to “speak” from her hospital bed, returning to Congress emaciated, and practicing her speech. “He was there for me,” Gabby says. “He’ll be there for you too.” She hits the line, and high-fives Fabi. You can see how hard she’s been working, but did you imagine she’d put in 130 hours of practice?
Then Gabby rises and hobbles to a lectern before a massive American flag, like the one flapping behind her the day she was taken down. She delivers her speech in a single take: 84 seconds, 21 sentences, 155 words.
“I’ve known the darkest of days,” she begins. She describes pain, despair, and uncertainty. And yet, confronted by paralysis and aphasia, “I put one foot in front of the other. I found one word, and then I found another.”
At this new kind of convention, Biden, finally catching up with modern media, amplified Gabby’s call to action across two nights and two platforms, tweeting in real time to his 8.7 million followers and continuing the message in his acceptance speech the following night.
Biden: I’m doing this for Gabby. I’m doing this for so many families who have lost a loved one to gun violence.
Gabby: Today I struggle to speak. But I have not lost my voice.
Biden: I hear their voices, and if you listen you can hear them too.
Gabby: We are at a crossroads. We can let the shooting continue, or we can act.
Biden: I made a promise to families hurt by gun violence to never, ever give up on the fight.
Gabby: We can protect our families, our future. We can vote. We can be on the right side of history.
Biden: We’re going to be on the right side of history.
Gabby: We must elect Joe Biden. He was there for me; he’ll be there for you too. Join us in this fight. Vote, vote, vote.
Biden had found his voice on guns. He echoed much of what Gabby had said, but one line addressed the founding principle of her organization: “Our nation’s gun violence epidemic is really a cowardice problem,” he tweeted.
It was quite an admission. That’s been Gabby’s message to the political class all along: All they’re really lacking is courage.
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