By
Gabrielle Giffords & Marissa Nasiatka

Our Interview with Gabrielle Giffords: Former Member of the Arizona House of Representatives

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Gabby Giffords

Gabrielle Giffords is a Jewish American politician and former member of the United States House of Representatives from Arizona's 8th congressional district. She was born June 8, 1970, and was raised in Tucson, Arizona. She completed her undergraduate university studies from Scripps College, where she was awarded a William Fulbright Scholarship to study for a year in Mexico. Later, Giffords obtained her master’s degree in Regional Planning from Cornell University.

Prior to becoming involved with politics, Giffords was the President and Chief Executive Officer of El Campo Tire, Inc. Giffords' began her career in politics by representing Tucson in the Arizona Legislature from 2000 to 2005, becoming the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona State Senate. She was named Woman of the Year by Tucson Business Edge for her commitment to business and public service and Woman on the Move by YWCA in 2005. She was named Legislator of the Year by the Arizona Planning Association and Most Valuable Player by the Sierra Club, for her work on environmental issues. Giffords also received the Top 10 Technology Legislator of the Year award from the Arizona Technology Council for three straight years - 2003, 2004, 2005, and was named Legislator of the Year by the Mental Health Association of Arizona in 2004.

In November 2006, Giffords was elected for the first time to the House of Representatives from the 8th District of Arizona, a diverse area that covers 9,000 square miles including a 114-mile border with Mexico. She was re-elected in November 2008 and again in November 2010. While in Congress, Giffords served on the House Armed Services, Appropriations, Commerce and Economic Development, and Finance Committees and the Subcommittees on Air and Land Forces and Military Readiness. In addition, she acted as Vice Chair of the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, Vice Chair of the U.S.-Mexico Interparliamentary Group and Chair of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee.

On January 8, 2011, Giffords was the target of an assassination attempt during a political rally at a grocery store in suburban Tucson, Arizona. The lone gunman entered the rally and proceeded to shoot twenty people, six of whom died at the scene including a young girl and a federal judge. Giffords was shot in the head and taken to the University Medical Center in Tucson for emergency surgery, after which she was place into a medically induced coma. Miraculously, she survived the gunshot wound and the subsequent surgeries.

In August 2011, Giffords returned to the floor of the Congress for the first time following the attack and submitted her vote on a House bill to a standing ovation.

On January 25, 2012, the day after President Obama's State of the Union address to which she attended, Giffords formally submitted her letter of resignation from Congress. In her statement she said that holding political office was still a calling but that she needed to focus on her recovery efforts. Her letter was publicly read by fellow Democratic representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

Giffords is married to Captain Mark Kelly, a Navy Pilot and NASA astronaut, and was the only U.S. Representative in 2011 with an active-duty military spouse.

Interview Questions and Answers

 

Q1: Friends of Aphasia is a nonprofit organization that you co-founded in 2018. What was the inspiration behind this organization? How would you describe this organization?

Prior to being shot, I didn’t really know what aphasia was. Now I struggle with it every day. So many people have helped me through my recovery, which is a driving force behind my co-founding of Friends of Aphasia with my speech therapist Fabi and my friend Suzy. Together, we dream of a world in which aphasia does not limit a person’s quality of life. Our organization’s mission is to support access to quality, patient-centered aphasia therapy services; the development and implementation of community education, advocacy, and outreach programs; and research aimed at advancing innovative and effective aphasia treatment approaches.

 

Q2: Aphasia affects a person's ability to express and understand written and spoken language. Can you tell us more about how you are affected by it? What does having aphasia mean to you personally?

After I was shot, I had to relearn how to walk and how to talk. Speaking used to come easily to me—now I often struggle to find the right word. It can be incredibly frustrating to know exactly what I want to say but have a hard time communicating it. 

I don’t like aphasia at all, but I don’t let it keep me from pursuing my passions, big or small. As I said in my speech at the Democratic National Convention, I struggle to speak, but I have not lost my voice. I’ve made gun violence prevention my life’s work, and when we’re not in a pandemic, I travel around the country to meet with survivors, advocates, and legislators. I also ride my bike, take Spanish lessons, and play French horn. My aphasia is part of who I am, but I don’t let it define me. 

 

Q3: Based on your experience, what would you say to others who are recovering from injury?

Move ahead! I don’t spend my time looking back and wishing I could change the past—it’s impossible. Instead, I ask myself what I want to do with my future. This is much easier to do when you’re surrounded by a supportive community. My husband Mark, my mom, my friends and family, all of my former constituents who have showered me with their prayers and well wishes and everyone I’ve met since who has offered a smile or a kind word: it’s all fuel that keeps me moving ahead. I hope to be able to pay that love and support forward by encouraging people who are struggling with a disability, or with any other aspect of their lives, to keep going and never give up.  

"To young people with differences: you are the leaders our communities need." -Gabrielle Giffords

 

Q4: Is there anything you would like to say to young people with differences to inspire them to work hard and reach their dreams?

To young people with differences: you are the leaders our communities need. You are uniquely equipped to tackle issues of injustice and use your voice to elevate the issues that matter most. Although your boldness and leadership might threaten people in positions of power, that is not a reason to step away from the fight. So stand in your power, lean on your community, and never dim your light for anyone. There is no doubt that you will face barriers, but with hard work and persistence, you will find that your dreams are within reach. >

 

Q5: Music has a way of healing. Can you tell us about musical therapy, your love for the French Horn, and how music helps with recovery?

Music therapy played an important role in the early days of my recovery. Before I could speak words, I was able to sing songs, which lifted my spirits and gave me hope that I would be able to speak again. Today when I’m looking for a pick-me-up, I turn on 80s music. 

I played French horn as a girl, and it’s been so wonderful to take lessons again as an adult. Just like with my speech therapy, French horn requires a lot of practice. There are some similarities with my work in gun violence prevention, too: you have to put in the hours, you do best if you’re working with a supportive community, and you can’t stop when things get hard. I love when I nail a song after practicing for weeks or months. There’s no better feeling than hard work paying off!

 

Q6: Your organization, Giffords, provides America advocacy and research focused on promoting gun safety. What do you hope to accomplish with Giffords this year?

I founded Giffords in 2013 to end the gun violence epidemic plaguing the US. We started the organization after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 26 people, including 20 children. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about much broader gun violence is than mass shootings and how gun homicides have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.  

This year, we hope to work with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, as well as the Biden-Harris administration, to usher in a new era of gun safety reform. Passing universal background checks through Congress is our top priority. We also outlined a list of executive actions that we recommend the new administration take on gun safety, including investing in community violence intervention programs. 

In everything we do, we want to continue amplifying the voices of gun violence survivors, responsible gun owners, and Black and Brown movement leaders. Storytelling is a powerful tool for social change, and survivors can use their stories to inspire action on gun violence prevention.

 

Q7: Does gun violence impact some people more than others?

It absolutely does. Black Americans are 10 times more likely than white Americans to be killed with a gun. COVID-19 and subsequent spikes in gun violence have had a disproportionate impact on Black Americans, which we highlighted in Giffords Law Center’s recently released Annual Gun Law Scorecard. To address the disproportionate harm that gun violence has on Black communities, we must pass strong federal gun safety laws, invest in community violence intervention programs, and hold law enforcement accountable when they perpetrate gun violence.

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Q8: What is the number one way the average citizen can make a substantial difference in stopping gun violence?

Let your elected representatives know that you care about this issue! Pro-gun extremists—people who think there should be no gun laws—are a small minority of the country, but they have the gun lobby behind them. We need to make sure that our government knows that most everyday Americans want to see gun safety reform and safer communities. Our elected officials are juggling a lot right now, but gun violence hasn’t gone away during the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways, it’s gotten worse, with shootings surging in a number of cities across the country. We must keep making our voices heard, and keep pushing for the common sense solutions that we know will save lives.

 

Q9: Why do you think that Congress has not been able to pass the legislation to try to prevent mass shootings?

For decades, the NRA and the gun lobby have suffocated attempts to pass gun safety legislation through Congress. The NRA’s lobbyists push lawmakers to adopt extremist positions on guns that prioritize profits over saving lives. Senate Republicans eagerly embraced this and blocked common sense gun safety laws, while accepting huge donations from the gun lobby. We know that gun laws save lives—but only if we have leaders with the courage to enact them.

Americans want gun reform. Our democracy is based on the principle that Congress should reflect the will of the people. I’m hopeful that the current Congress will have the courage to act.

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