What wasn’t said said everything.
Gabby Giffords came to Des Moines last week to talk with women about gun safety. But after a few opening sentences, the former congresswoman from Arizona didn’t speak again.
And that fact spoke louder than anything anyone could have said about the need to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
It was nearly three years ago that Giffords, now 44, was shot in the head while holding a public meeting with constituents outside a Tucson supermarket. At first it was unclear if she would survive – six other people at the scene did not – and then if she’d be able to read or write, walk or talk.
She walks with a cane now. When there is something to applaud, she does it by slapping one hand against a knee; the other is paralyzed. She still has trouble talking thanks to a condition called aphasia, which sometimes makes it hard to understand speech or writing, or to call up the right words. It’s associated with strokes and head injuries.
It happened to “Gabby,” as she is widely known, because a mentally ill man with a history of drug abuse who spouted conspiracy theories and didn’t think women should hold political office could buy a 9-mm pistol from a sportsmen’s store and fire on a crowd.
“Dangerous people with guns are a threat to women,” Giffords said firmly but haltingly. “Criminals with guns, abusers with guns, stalkers with guns. That makes gun violence a women’s issue – for mothers, for families, for me and you.”
Giffords was on a nine-state tour with the organization she cofounded with her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly (both gun owners) called Americans for Responsible Solutions. They did so in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Its fact sheet explains why this is a women’s issue:
Women in America are 11 times more likely to be killed by a gun than women in other advanced industrialized countries.
In the 12 years ending in 2013, more U.S. women were killed by intimate partners using guns – close to 6,500 – than U.S. troops were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
The risk of death in a domestic dispute increases five-fold when there’s a gun available.
This is the time of year, before elections, when organizations are out lobbying hard for their issues. It might be human-services spending or the federal debt. It may be climate change or agricultural subsidies. But it was clear from this panel of women, in law enforcement, domestic violence prevention, human and civil rights, that this one is already an issue for them.
The immediate priority for Giffords’ organization is fixing weaknesses in federal and state laws. At the federal level, even though people convicted of domestic abuse and felony stalking can’t legally buy guns, those convicted of misdemeanor stalking can. And the domestic abuser prohibition doesn’t apply to dating relationships, though in 2008 almost half of all domestic violence homicides were committed against someone who was or had been a dating partner.
Proposed fixes to the law also would prohibit people under temporary restraining orders from owning firearms, expand federal background checks and improve domestic violence records submissions to the national crime database. Another gun-safety organization, Moms Demand Action, notes that in 29 states, convicted stalkers can buy and own guns.
Giffords sat and listened as women talked about particular acts of gun violence, polls and loopholes. She nodded, leaned forward, occasionally wrinkled her forehead and applauded as the situation demanded. But she didn’t talk.
I returned to the office stirred by her determined demeanor despite the horrible reality of what was done to her, only to get another reality check. It was a news release from the organization Iowa Gun Owners.
“Gun-grabbers will only be more emboldened if they can attack our gun rights in the legislative session and feel no push-back in their districts when election season comes along,” it said. So it was distributing scorecards showing how every state legislator had voted on guns.
“Gun-control zealots in Iowa are learning a painful lesson,” said the news release. “If you come after our gun rights, you will be held accountable.”
Painful? They don’t understand the meaning of that word. They should meet Gabby Giffords.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.