Former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat from Arizona, retired from Congress after she was shot in the head at point-blank range during a congressional event in her district in 2011. Six people died and 12 others were injured. She and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, founded the organization Americans for Responsible Solutions [now known as Giffords] to fight gun violence and support gun-sense candidates for office. In this interview by KK Ottesen, from Activist: Portraits of Courage, Giffords describes what gives her strength to continue her work in public service.
After college, I took a job in New York City working for PricewaterhouseCoopers. I was in my 20s, and moving to the city was thrilling. But that particular adventure didn’t last long. After a few short months, I moved back home to Tucson [Arizona] and took over for my father as the president and CEO of El Campo Tire Warehouses. I wasn’t very excited about entering the tire business. But my dad needed help, and when your family needs you, you show up. I had to learn the tire business from the ground up. That first year was such a whirlwind, but it was an experience I now realize forever changed my life.
While I learned about the tire business, I also learned a lot about my community and the people who live there. I began thinking differently about the issues that matter most to them, like access to jobs and affordable health care, and the real impact policy decisions have on their daily lives. When I took over the tire company, I noticed women weren’t given the same opportunities as men, and I worked to change that, and made sure that all of our employees got treated with respect. Three years later, after careful consideration, including negotiations for all our employees’ jobs, I sold the company and decided to pursue public service. When I first ran, I did what I’ve always done: Listen to the stories of people. I took meetings with as many people as possible and knocked on as many doors [as] I could. What I heard gave me inspiration to keep running.
After the shooting in Tucson, my life changed in many ways. I lost good friends. Six people died, and twelve others were injured. And it left me with a long road to recovery. Not many people realize that speaking is still hard for me. My eyesight isn’t great, and despite hours and hours of physical therapy, my right arm and right leg remain mostly paralyzed. But instead of focusing on the things that I cannot do, I’ve tried to focus on the things that I can do—and live without limits. But one thing that never left was my desire to contribute to society.
Mark and I had begun talking about if and how we could get involved in helping reduce gun violence. That discussion actually started during a vacation we took in July 2012. The day before we got on the plane, the news was dominated by a gunman opening fire in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 and injuring 58 others. It was absolutely horrifying. In my career, I’ve always sought to find the common ground. So, on that plane, while we thought about Aurora, both of us realized that more needed to be done to bridge the divide between gun owners, like us, and the majority of Americans who simply want their communities to be safe. Those conversations continued. But it was when 20 first- and second-graders were murdered in their classrooms at Sandy Hook [Elementary School] that we decided to launch our fight. The country was outraged. We were outraged. We wanted to chip away at the conventional wisdom that nothing could be done about this country’s gun-violence crisis. We can have disagreements about what exact laws should be passed, but when Congress refuses to even debate policy solutions, much less take any meaningful action, then it’s time for a change. After the school shooting in Santa Fe [New Mexico, in 2018], I remember hearing a student comment that she wasn’t surprised a shooting happened at her school. She expected one would happen eventually. What a horrifying statement. We’ve all got to ask ourselves: is that really the kind of country we want to live in?
There is a time to compromise and a time to be tough. I think of my friend, former Sen. John McCain. He didn’t mince words. Yet he also sought to hear people out. So, you stand up for what you believe in, while recognizing that in order to make change happen, we ultimately need to bring people together. In Congress, I made sure all the legislation I introduced was bipartisan. I knew we—in Congress and in our country—were at our best when we worked to find common ground. But there were also times that called for courage. The fight against gun violence requires compromise at times, but we must also recognize that when it comes to protecting the lives of our kids and doing everything in our power to stop the carnage, there is no other side.
Mark has been an inspiration to me—since the shooting, he’s never wavered. I also draw inspiration and courage from those that have been down hard roads themselves. Leaders like John Lewis. I’ve learned a lot from him, and always remember something he once said: “We may not have chosen the time, but the time has chosen us.” These can be hard times. Even scary times. But I remain hopeful because of the strength I’ve seen from our children. They have pointed out that America has failed to keep them safe and are following in the footsteps of our country’s heroes who, at critical moments in our history, have stood up and said, “Enough. It’s time for change.”
Excerpt from Activist: Portraits of Courage by KK Ottesen, Chronicle Books 2019, appears with permission of the publisher.
KK Ottesen is an author and photographer who shares the stories of peoples' lives through first-person narrative interviews and photographic portraits. Through her work, she seeks to break down barriers and stereotypes and allow for the discovery and celebration of common ground. Ottesen is a regular contributor to the Washington Post magazine where her interviews and photographs have appeared for more than a decade; other credits include Esquire, Ms.com, and Washingtonian.