One of Gabby Giffords’ priorities for 2021 is to forge relationships with writers, producers, celebrities and decision-makers in Hollywood who can leverage their powerful platforms to speak out against gun violence, call for commonsense laws and support local community efforts to raise awareness about gun safety.
The 50-year-old former Arizona congresswoman-turned-gun safety activist has started engaging with the entertainment community and hopes to devise more strategic ways to work together in the new year to help shift cultural attitudes and push policies that make for a gun-safe country.
On Jan. 6, two days before the 10th anniversary of her near-death experience of being shot in the head at a constituent event in Tucson, Giffords was filled with dread as she awaited news about the safety of her husband, Sen. Mark Kelly, who along with his fellow senators had to be whisked to safety from the Senate chamber as the Capitol was under siege by a Donald Trump-instigated mob.
Giffords was horrified by the violence that erupted and claimed the lives of five individuals, including a 35-year-old woman who was shot in the chest, an officer who was struck in the head during the riot and an officer who had responded to the attack and died by suicide three days later.
“I’m heartbroken by the violent attempt to undermine our democracy,” Giffords told me in response to written questions. “But, the American people will not be terrorized. I still believe in the power of democracy to bring us together, casting away hate and lighting a better path forward.”
It is that kind of positive thinking, resilience and determination that has helped Giffords overcome the trauma of being shot at close range, which left her with impaired speech, vision and motor skills. She says that listening to music — “I’m a big fan of U2 and Aerosmith” — along with biking and yoga have been integral to her recovery.
Giffords, who has growing followings on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, recently tweeted: “I’ve never let anything hold me back, and that’s why I’m proud to continue to serve every day fighting for a safer, better community.”
The assassination attempt on her life and the shooting deaths of six people at the Tucson event by the same gunman happened just days after Giffords was sworn in for her third term in Congress. Just over a year later, she resigned, leaving behind her political career and any ambitions she might have had to run for higher office.
It was her brush with death and the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which claimed the lives of 20 children and seven adults, that she said “made it my mission to end the gun violence epidemic.” In 2016, she and Kelly, a former astronaut and Space Shuttle commander, co-founded Giffords, a nonprofit advocacy group to end gun violence.
On Jan. 8, marking a decade since Giffords’ shooting, President-elect Joe Biden tweeted this message to Giffords: “Your perseverance and immeasurable courage continue to inspire me and millions of others. I pledge to work with you — and with survivors, families and advocates across the country — to defeat the NRA and end our epidemic of gun violence.”
Because her aphasia, a result of the shooting, makes it difficult for her to connect thoughts to spoken words, Giffords was sent a series of questions via email. Here is an edited transcript of our interview:
Why is it important to build relationships with Hollywood when it comes to combating gun violence and promoting gun safety?
Part of our mission at Giffords is to change the culture around gun violence, and few industries play a larger role in shaping culture than the entertainment industry. One of the most frustrating aspects of the fight against gun violence is that there really is broad consensus around this issue: The vast majority of Americans are fed up and want our leaders to take action. Commonsense, evidence-based policies like universal background checks have widespread support. But for years, the gun lobby and the politicians it’s bought and paid for have held back progress.
We need and welcome everyone in this fight: doctors, survivors, gun owners, veterans, mothers and fathers, film directors and artists. The more that we make our voices heard and our demands known, the better our chance of making change.
Do you believe that the entertainment industry can play an important role in helping address the nation’s cultural and political divide?
Stories are important. Elected officials use them to help get their points across, and for centuries artists have used them to inspire, make us understand points of view different than our own and bring people together. Hollywood and the arts are vitally important to helping us through a period of isolation, bitterness and divisiveness.
Though it’s never been proven, do you think there’s a correlation between violence depicted on-screen and in video games to real-life violence?
One of the least-understood aspects of gun violence is the form it most often takes. Mass shootings like the one in Tucson 10 years ago get the most media attention, but cause a small percentage of gun deaths. The majority of the nearly 40,000 annual gun deaths in the United States are suicides. Most gun homicides happen in the context of “community violence”: shootings in underserved communities in our cities that are too often over-policed for minor infractions and under-protected from serious violence.
The gun lobby likes to blame gun violence on scapegoats like mental health or video games, but the truth is that other wealthy nations have the same rates of mental health diagnoses and video games but nowhere near the same level of gun violence. This year has been full of long-overdue reckonings, especially with our country’s systemic racism, both past and present. Gun violence should not be excluded from this conversation —homicides, which disproportionately affect Black Americans, have surged during the pandemic. These are the stories we need to continue to bring to the forefront, because without awareness, there can be no progress.
What kind cultural shifts and measures can be enacted to help prevent the kind of horrific acts of police brutality perpetrated against Black men and women as we witnessed with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and so many others?
Police violence is gun violence. And much like other types of gun homicides, Black Americans — especially Black men — are disproportionately affected. We cannot claim to be a nation that offers liberty and justice for all if we let this crisis continue unabated. It’s been proven that high-profile incidents of police brutality also destroy the already strained relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, fueling devastating cycles of gun violence. We must commit to meaningful reform of harmful law enforcement practices and to funding proven community violence-intervention programs.
How important is local activism when it comes to pushing for gun legislation and community fundraising?
I’m a strong believer in the importance of local activism. President Barack Obama, of course, got his start as a community organizer, and Stacey Abrams has focused her organizing and advocacy efforts on the state of Georgia, which resulted in Democratic control of the Senate. While the Senate and the White House have spent the past four years refusing to take action on gun violence, the vast majority of our gun safety progress has happened at the state and local levels.
An increasing focus of my organization, Giffords, over the past few years has been community violence-intervention programs, which work to directly intervene with the small number of individuals at the highest risk of violence. These targeted programs don’t rely on harmful tactics like mass incarceration, and have been proven extremely effective at reducing violence, often in just a few years. Unfortunately, many of these programs have struggled to keep the lights on during the pandemic, even as intervention workers have been asked to double as front-line health care workers by distributing masks, hand sanitizer and health and safety information in under-resourced communities.
When you served in Congress, gun laws didn’t appear to be one of your top priorities. Please talk about how your priorities shifted after you were shot.
As a young congresswoman, I had so many dreams and goals. I’ve long been passionate about renewable energy, for example. I thought I would have more than four years in Congress to make a dent in my long list of objectives — I was only just getting started when I was shot at a “Congress on Your Corner” event in January 2011.
I’ve long been a gun owner, and see no conflict between the Second Amendment and commonsense gun laws. But it wasn’t until after I was shot, and after the nation suffered through the horror of the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, that I made it my mission to end the gun violence epidemic and co-founded the group today known as Giffords.
Sandy Hook was yet another wake-up call in a country that has suffered far too many wake-up calls. For 20 children and seven adults to be murdered, and for our country’s leaders to decide to do nothing — in my mind, that’s unconscionable. And yet that’s exactly what happened. I will never forget standing next to President Obama and Joe Biden in the Rose Garden, filled with despair, after the Senate failed to pass a bipartisan background-checks bill.
I turned that despair into action. One of my mottoes is “Move ahead,” and that’s what I sought to do. I started an organization that hasn’t stopped fighting, not just for universal background checks but also for other lifesaving policies like extreme risk protection orders. I’m hopeful that now, with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the White House and a Democratic Senate, we’ll have a real opportunity for change at the federal level for the first time in years.
How closely have you and your team worked with Joe Biden on gun safety initiatives?
Joe has long been a good friend and a supporter of our mission at Giffords. He was there for me after I was shot, and we’ve bonded over our shared goal of turning tragedy into purpose. When Giffords hosted a gun safety forum with March for Our Lives in October 2019, Joe joined us in Las Vegas and unveiled his comprehensive gun safety platform. Both Joe and Kamala made gun safety a central component of their campaigns during the primary, and I couldn’t be more excited to work with the White House on gun safety reform over these next four years.
How hopeful are you that the president-elect will pass meaningful legislation once he takes office?
Extremely! The remarkable wins in the Georgia Senate races — for which so much credit goes to Stacey Abrams and all of the work she did — make the passage of meaningful gun safety legislation possible. Universal background checks are our top priority in terms of congressional action. There’s also a fair amount the new administration can do to address this epidemic that doesn’t require Congress’s approval, like creating an interagency task force on gun violence within the federal government. I’m so grateful for all of the activists and volunteers who worked so hard to set our country up for success in 2021 and beyond. It hasn’t been easy, but step by step, we are making progress. I plan to keep at it.
Do you think he and Kamala Harris will make gun safety one of their top priorities in their first year?
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have a tremendous amount of work on their plates when they take office. Nearly 350,000 Americans have died from COVID, hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs and our outgoing president has done his very best to undermine our democracy and jeopardize our long-standing institutions.
Through all this, the gun violence epidemic has continued to rage. I have full confidence that stopping gun violence will be a priority for the incoming administration — in fact, my organization has already provided the transition team with detailed memos outlining recommended actions on gun safety. But I also understand that systems of public health and safety are interlocking and interwoven, and wholeheartedly believe in the importance of addressing systemic racism and economic inequality, including the disproportionate impact that COVID has had on communities of color. Addressing gun violence alongside these issues, not instead of them, will help make our country a safer and more just place for us all.
You’ve talked about how music was a big part of your healing process and that your therapists believe lyrical recitation helps brain function. What are you listening to these days?
I’m a big fan of U2 and Aerosmith — a life highlight was when Steven Tyler called me out from the stage of his Aerosmith concert! If I have music on in the background, there’s a pretty good chance it’s ’80s music. I love playing the French horn, which I first learned when I was a girl. Biking and yoga have both been integral to my recovery. As much as I’ve enjoyed being able to connect with my staff and friends virtually, I always make time for creativity and physical activity. Anything that pushes me to develop a new skill or requires me to get outside and move around is critical to both my recovery and my overall well-being.