Gun nuts meet their match: Why Gabby Giffords isn't playing nice anymore

Ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is facing criticism for her "mean" gun control ads. There's a very good reason for that

Published September 23, 2014 8:59PM (EDT)

Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords     (Reuters/Samantha Sais)
Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (Reuters/Samantha Sais)

A few years back someone walked up to then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona, and shot her in the head. The shooter, Jared Loughner, killed six and injured a dozen or so others. In 2012, another nut shot up a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Later that year, a shooter walked into a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school and murdered 20 children. These are only a few high-profile examples of the dozens of mass shootings that have taken place in the last several years.

After Newtown, President Obama and many members of Congress finally felt compelled to make the first serious push for gun control legislation in decades. Their demands were eventually whittled down to some modest measures, such as expanding background checks for gun buyers. But even that effort, pushed hard by then-former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and backed by vast majorities of the American people, failed to overcome a Republican Senate filibuster.

Oddly enough, it strains certain imaginations that the above sequence of events is something that people could get really, really angry about it. That masses of people, including members of Congress, movie-theater patrons, and children could get shot, and that members of Congress -- mostly Republicans, with a handful of conservative Democrats -- wouldn't even accede a minimal piece of legislation shoring up the country's porous background check laws. It's horrifying and enraging, and those public figures who work to maintain or even loosen what we might generously called the "loopholed" status quo of American gun law should expect to be treated as accomplices to this farce.

As Giffords herself recovered, retired from Congress and became an ardent advocate for stricter background checks, she first tried to play nice. She implored members of both parties to work together to pass common-sense gun regulations, like those closing background check loopholes for private sales on the Internet and at gun shows. The advocacy commercials she and/or her husband appeared in were mostly to urge action, not to attack. As we know, that didn't work very well.

So this cycle, Giffords' super PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions, is getting "mean." That's how Politico describes the group's tactics this cycle.

Some of the toughest spots from Giffords’ newly formed pro-gun-control super PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions, hammer Republican Martha McSally, a retired Air Force pilot who is running for the Arizona seat Giffords once held. One features a wrenching testimonial from a woman named Vicki who weeps and stumbles over her words as she recounts how her 19-year-old daughter was hunted down and murdered by an enraged ex-boyfriend.

“He had threatened her before. I knew. I just knew,” Vicki says. A narrator then declares that McSally “opposes making it harder for stalkers to get a gun.”

So mean! You can watch the ad below:

You bet it's a "tough" ad, as other handicappers have described it. It's "emotional." That's because when, say, a vengeful ex-boyfriend, or anyone, walks up to another person and shoots them, it's a very "tough," "emotional" thing. It's a bloody violent awful tragedy. Yet somehow, politicians who support the lax gun policies that inevitably lead to such episodes, and won't even consider the slightest tweaks toward restricting gun ownership, feel that they don't deserve to be subjects of these sort of attack ads. They feel they can proselytize about the glories of gun culture all they want, and that's fine, but if the dirty gun-grabbers then connect them and their preferred policies to instances of gun violence ... well, that's impolite and Over the Line, the arbiters of civility tell us.

The editorial board of the Arizona Republic is disgusted with this Vicki ad. "It is base and vile. It exploits a family's tragedy to score cheap political points. And when the ad makes news because it goes too far, Gabrielle Giffords makes news with it. Because it's her group." The editorialists, see, couldn't imagine that Giffords herself would condone these sort of tactics, and warns the management at Americans for Responsible Solutions that they're sullying the reputation of Giffords, the Magical Cuddly Sparkle Bear of American politics.

So we ask again, Americans for Responsible Solutions, do you know what you're doing?

Do the people who control your messaging know they are marring the legacy of a congresswoman known for her decency and good judgment, who practiced civility in office with such consistency she did not just reach across the aisle but found cherished friends there? [...]

Perhaps the Tucson shooting changed Gabby Giffords. Perhaps she is the one who controls the message. But we doubt it.

That's not who she is.

Maybe the writers of this are being cheeky, to add yet another layer of condescension to an editorial that's already dripping with it. Perhaps they know that Giffords is A-OK with this strategy and are giving her a tut-tutting pat on the head as a fatherly warning against breaching the standards of "civility" to which they'd prefer she adhere. As if Giffords' legacy is theirs to write, her priorities theirs to determine.

But Giffords is under no contract to serve as mascot for superficial "civility" standards. She tried to approach her policy priorities the friendly way, by using her celebrity to unite Democrats and Republicans behind new gun legislation, and it didn't work. So now she's approaching them the other way: by tying politicians who resist things like expanded background checks to the outcomes of that. Politico reports that Giffords is indeed "deeply involved in the making of the ads."

Gabrielle Giffords is not, and is under no obligation to be, a Civility Unicorn. She got shot in the head and is furious about other people getting shot, too. She wants to change gun laws in the United States -- even if that means disrupting an atmosphere of good cheer with insertions of grisly reality.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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