“The courageous path is not always the easy one, but it’s always the most rewarding,” says the former congresswoman.
There are few comebacks as compelling as when former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords returned to Congress just seven months after a shooting that almost took her life.
With the scars of trauma still visible, Giffords made her way to the House on August 1, 2011, to vote “yes” on a bipartisan bill to raise the federal debt ceiling as the nation was on the brink of financial default. Following months of contentious negotiations between Republicans and Democrats, her presence brought lawmakers together across the aisle—literally. As she entered the Capitol building, there was an outpouring of joy and a standing ovation on the House floor.
“It was hard for me to walk and to communicate — harder than it is now, after 10 years of rehab,” Giffords told us. “But it was important for me to be there because I knew the vote could be close and that my voice was necessary.”
The vote marked her first public appearance since she was shot in the head at point-blank range in Tucson, Ariz., as she greeted constituents at a shopping center. The gunman, Jared Loughner, was later sentenced to life in prison for killing six people and injuring 12 others.
Though these wounds are what led to her retirement in 2012, she has since become a prominent gun-control advocate as the leader of Giffords, a non-profit advocacy group. To mark the 10-year-anniversary of her return to Congress, Giffords opened up about her long road to recovery and the current state of gun reform.
On the 10th anniversary of your return to Congress, what would you like people to know?
Gabby Giffords: I knew I needed to do my part, even though it was hard. We all face moments like that, both small and large, throughout our lives. What comes to mind now is the need for every American who can to get vaccinated against Covid. We have the privilege of free access to vaccines that will save lives and contribute meaningfully to the public good, and everyone who can get vaccinated should do so — if not for themselves, then in service to their community and their country. The courageous path is not always the easy one, but it’s always the most rewarding.
What has your rehabilitation been like?
Giffords: Challenging for sure, but giving up has never been an option. I’ve had to fight so hard to regain the ability to do small things that most people take for granted. Because of this, every ounce of progress is meaningful to me. When I gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention last summer, I practiced with my speech therapist, Fabi, for weeks beforehand. When your voice almost gets taken away completely, you realize how important it is to speak up for what matters most to you. I’ll never stop speaking up for the causes I believe in, especially the fight for gun safety.
What are some things you learned about yourself during quarantine?
Giffords: I think many people had this experience, but I was reminded how important it is for me to be together with others. As much as I loved connecting with colleagues, friends, and supporters over Zoom, it’s just not the same as being united in person! I really missed traveling and meeting people face-to-face, hearing firsthand stories of courage and determination. But even while I missed being on the road, I also gained an even deeper appreciation for my home of Tucson: the desert heat, the people I passed on my daily bike rides, the saguaros that stud our landscape.
Due in part to the ongoing pandemic, this has already been a terrible year for gun violence. What do you think is the best approach in addressing this spike?
Giffords: President Biden has taken important steps in addressing the gun violence crisis by proposing investments in proven community violence intervention programs and nominating a strong ATF director. Joe Biden has been my friend for a long time — when he was vice president, he came to see me the day I returned to the House floor 10 years ago. I knew that he and Kamala Harris would prioritize gun safety if elected to the White House, and so far they have been the gun safety champions that our country so desperately needs.
Now it’s Congress’s turn. We need to pass universal background checks, closing dangerous loopholes in our federal gun laws. We need to regulate “ghost guns,” dangerous untraceable firearms that are increasingly used in crime. And we need to make sure that lifesaving community violence intervention programs are adequately funded and able to address these devastating spikes in gun homicides, which disproportionately affect communities of color.
Do you have any hope for meaningful gun reform?
Giffords: After I was shot 10 years ago, it wasn’t clear that I would make it. In fact, some outlets initially reported that I hadn’t survived. Even once I was out of the woods, my doctors didn’t know if I would regain the ability to walk or talk. In the last 10 years, I’ve jumped out of a plane, I’ve driven on a real racetrack, and I’ve given speeches around the world.
When I think of hope, I think of my friend Joe Biden, who endured so much personal tragedy and suffering and is now leading our country out of a time of tragedy and suffering. I think of another one of my heroes, John Lewis, who was literally beaten by racists trying to stop progress. I think of Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head like I was, as retaliation for her campaign for female education.
Hope is a choice. When I feel like my own is in short supply, I look to these individuals and the many other survivors, warriors, and heroes I’ve had the privilege of meeting, and I keep moving ahead.
As someone who has overcome so much hardship, what is your message to people struggling right now?
Giffords: Move ahead. Moving ahead doesn’t mean forgetting where you came from or what made you who you are today. Much like hope, moving ahead is a choice. We can let ourselves be overcome by resentment and cynicism, or we can put one foot in front of another — not despite what we’ve been through, but because of it. We can ensure that our struggles make us more empathetic, not less. We can seek deeper connection, not push others away. We can, and we must, keep going, because the alternative is to stagnate or go backwards, and that’s not much of an alternative at all.