EXCLUSIVE: Gabrielle Giffords, Mark Kelly let cowardly Congress have it on gun control

Behind the scenes as gun control goes down in the Senate, revealing the depth of gun power within halls of Congress

By Gabrielle Giffords - Mark E. Kelly
Published October 23, 2014 11:00AM (EDT)
Gabrielle Giffords    (AP/Elaine Thompson)
Gabrielle Giffords (AP/Elaine Thompson)

From the book "Enough: Our Fight to Keep America Safe From Gun Violence" 

The Senate scheduled its votes on gun-violence measures on Wednesday, April 17. Gabby and I knew we had to be there. Senators were taking sides. We had been talking to a few by phone. Now it was time to make our case in person.

“We have a shot at this,” I said to Gabby as we left home early Monday morning to board a flight to D.C.

“Hard,” she said. “But yes.” Gabby wasn’t naïve. She had a lot more experience in politics than I did, and she knew how unpredictable these votes could be. She also had the good sense to stay focused on the long game.

To get to 60 votes for the Manchin-Toomey bill, which would end debate and protect it from stalling tactics, we needed every Democrat in the room plus six Republicans. Under the Senate’s complicated rules, a simple majority—51 to 49—would allow Republican opponents to add amendments as poison pills to weaken or kill the bill. It would open the process up to weeks of debate. We needed 60.

* * *

We landed in Washington early Monday evening, both to take part in the debate and to honor Gabe Zimmerman, Gabby’s staffer who had lost his life in the Tucson shooting.

That night we gathered with our staff and friends and Gabby’s former congressional aides for a dinner to remember Gabe. It was a bittersweet affair. We told stories, laughed, and cried. Gabe’s parents, Ross Zimmerman and Emily Nottingham, shared tales of young Gabe.

In January of 2012, we had dedicated the Gabe Zimmerman Davidson Canyon Trailhead at the trail’s gateway southeast of Tucson. Gabe, who was 30 when Jared Loughner killed him, loved to hike and bike the trails around the city. He had worked hard on the measure to designate the Davidson Canyon Trail route as a National Scenic Trail. It was fitting that his name and his image welcomed people to the trail he loved so much.

Congress honored Gabe Zimmerman, too. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz had introduced a bill to dedicate a meeting room in the Capitol Visitor Center in Gabe’s honor. With the help of House Speaker John Boehner, the bill passed unanimously, and the dedication was scheduled for Tuesday, the day after our dinner for Gabe.

Dedicating the room to Gabe made history. It was the first space in the new visitor center to be dedicated to an individual. And it was the first room in the entire Capitol complex to be named in honor of a staff member. You can find statues and portraits and plaques commemorating politicians throughout the Capitol, congressional office buildings, and grounds. This would be the first to honor the staffers who labor tirelessly behind the scenes to help make laws and solve problems for constituents.

When Gabby arrived at Gabe’s event Tuesday afternoon, staffers had already filled the spacious room. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, Senator Flake, and Congressman Ron Barber, who had succeeded Gabby in the House, were on hand to speak. Speaker Boehner choked up a bit as he welcomed the crowd.

“This isn’t the space we use for pomp and ceremony,” Boehner said. “People come here for meetings and gatherings, democratic rituals in their own right, the kind of assemblies Gabe planned and led throughout his career.”

Gabe’s career in Congress began in 2006 when Ron Barber made him his first hire in Gabby’s Tucson office, as head of constituent services. “All of us wish we weren’t here today,” Barber said. “We wish Gabe were still with us. He led a life of such joy, passion, and curiosity.”

Barber, who had directed Gabby’s Tucson office, was by her side when Jared Loughner opened fire. Two bullets knocked Barber to the ground and nearly killed him. He recovered, and after Gabby resigned, Barber ran for and won Gabby’s congressional seat, with her blessing. At the shooting, Barber recalled seeing Gabe at the back of the crowd and then by his side on the ground: after Gabe heard the shots, he had rushed to Gabby’s side.

When Gabby and I took the microphone, I reminded everyone that Gabe was the only congressional staffer ever murdered in the line of duty. If Gabby could speak as well as she once could, I said, “she would keep you here all day long—”

“All day long,” Gabby butted in. “All day.”

“—talking about her friend Gabe,” I finished.

I had looked into the Tucson shooting in detail.

“It was no surprise for me to learn that immediately after the shooting started, Gabe ran toward Gabby and other victims,” I said, “toward the shooter and toward danger. Putting himself in service to others was Gabe’s last act on earth.”

Vice President Biden surprised us by showing up to honor Gabe. He comforted Gabe’s family, made us laugh, and honored the staffers who make Congress function.

We lingered after the ceremony, feeling the warmth and collegiality of this moment. The dedication of Gabe’s meeting room was a peaceful respite from the conflict over gun legislation that would come to a climax in the next twenty-four hours.

Congress could come together to honor Gabe Zimmerman, murdered by a madman who should never have had access to a firearm. Could it honor him with laws that might prevent the next mass murder?

* * *

I ran into Arizona Senator Jeff Flake in the hallway before the dedication of Gabe’s meeting room.

“Did you get my text?” I asked.

He took out his phone to check.

First thing that morning, I had attended the Christian Science Monitor’s regular breakfast for journalists and people in the news. The reporters and editors wanted my take on the series of votes on gun legislation, scheduled for Wednesday.

“A lot of senators are looking for a reason to just get to ‘no,’ ” I told the reporters and editors. “I experienced that personally last night when shown the Facebook posting of Senator Jeff Flake, Gabby’s good friend. He posted that he intends to vote ‘no’ on this legislation.”

When one of the reporters asked if I would back a challenger to Flake’s reelection, I hesitated.

I said, “You know, friendship is one thing. Saving people’s lives, especially first graders’, is another thing.”

I had such complicated feelings about our old friend that morning.

Jeff had been there when we needed him. He had come to visit Gabby in the hospital after the Tucson shooting, and I will never forget the concern on his face in the waiting room that day. He had stayed in close touch with us in the difficult months that followed, regularly calling me and Pia to offer us much-needed reassurance and support. Jeff had sat by my wife’s side when she attended the 2013 State of the Union, and I would never forget his friendship and loyalty to Gabby.

But how he voted on this first piece of legislation that could actually make a dent in gun violence mattered. If Jeff Flake, a moderate Republican senator, supported a gun-violence- prevention measure that the majority of his constituents backed, then others in his position might also be encouraged to cross the line.

After the Christian Science Monitor breakfast, I had sent Jeff a text alerting him of my comments. I didn’t want him to read them first in the media. As we stood in the hallway, he read my text and shook his head.

“What do we have to do to get you to ‘yes’?” I asked him. We understood exactly what Jeff was up against, but Gabby and I both believed that Manchin-Toomey was a bill worth fighting for.

Jeff said he had problems with the bill’s wording, rather than the intent. We had a productive discussion about items that seemed small and solvable, and in spite of it all, I held out hope that we could persuade Jeff and his colleagues to back Manchin-Toomey.

We knew how formidable an opponent the NRA could be, but maybe this time common sense would win out over intimidation.

* * *

In the car from Capitol Hill back to our downtown hotel, I got on the phone with Republican Senator Dan Coats from Indiana.

“What can I do to get you to change your vote?” I asked, knowing he was a long shot.

Coats had been a senator from 1989 to 1999, then retired and ran again in 2010. In his first term, he had voted for the Brady Bill and the 1994 ban on assault weapons. The votes prompted the NRA to oppose his candidacy.

This time around, he had voted for the filibuster. “I’m not going to support something that would violate the Second Amendment,” Coats had said.

We were desperate for Republican votes, but Coats told me that morning that he was more likely to get behind another legislative approach.

Next up was North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who we hoped might be a solid “maybe.” She was a freshman Democrat, so new to the Senate that she was still camped out in a temporary office when I spoke with her. She told me that calls and e-mails from her constituents were running around six to one against her supporting the expanded background checks legislation. North Dakota has a high number of gun owners and low rates of gun violence.

“It’s just really tough, Mark,” I remember her saying. In other words: another no.

Later, as we left, Gabby and I wondered what Senator Heitkamp had meant by that. Yes, politics is tough—isn’t that what she’d signed up for? Gun control was certainly a “tough” issue, but it was also a vitally important one.

Heitkamp had said that most of the callers to her office had been opposed to the background check bill, but that wasn’t a convincing argument. Gabby had been in politics long enough to know that phone calls are usually an indicator of passion and intensity—but little else. They don’t accurately measure the public’s support for a piece of legislation and should never be confused with a poll.

“What are we going to do with these people, Gabby?” I asked.

She just shook her head but didn’t say anything.

* * *

We had made a push during lunch that day at the Democratic caucus. New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg was too ill to make it, but every other Democrat attended. Gabby sat next to Senator Dick Durbin. Four Democrats who said they would not support Manchin-Toomey were in the room: Heitkamp, Alaska’s Mark Begich, Mark Pryor from Arkansas, and Montana’s Max Baucus. We needed each one to reach our magic number, 60. The Democratic leadership asked me to give a short speech about ARS’s efforts. Senator Baucus walked out in the middle of my talk.

Another “no,” I guessed. The math was not looking good.

After the Senate lunch, Gabby and I had a nice meeting in Joe Manchin’s office with the senator, his wife, Gayle, and Senator Toomey. It was the first chance we had had to thank them for their leadership and courage.

Their bill would reduce gun violence in America, period. The Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act required NICS background checks for gun sales at gun shows and over the Internet. It improved grants to states to encourage them to send mental health records to NICS. And, as I’ve said before, the bill enhanced Second Amendment rights along the way. It loosened restrictions on interstate sales, and exempted buyers with concealed-carry permits from having to pass a background check when buying from a dealer.

The NRA and the gun lobby loved to claim that the federal government was bent on creating a federal gun registry. But again, the Manchin-Toomey bill explicitly banned the federal government from doing any such thing.

As we got on the elevator down the hall from Manchin’s office, reporters asked how Gabby was feeling about the next day’s vote.

“Optimistic,” she said.

But counting votes that night, we had a hard time making it to 60.

* * *

By Wednesday, the day of the vote, Gabby and I were both exhausted. We had done our best to bring people to our side. I was angry. I couldn’t sleep. My conversations with senators kept replaying in my head.

“Why do these politicians come to Washington?” I asked. “To be scared by the NRA? Think about those first graders when Adam Lanza burst into their classroom. That’s scared.”

After giving a speech together at a health care company’s annual meeting, Gabby’s and my itineraries diverged. She would stay in Washington to monitor the vote in the Senate, while I was headed to Dover, Delaware, to testify before a state senate committee.

The governor of Delaware, Jack Markell, had invited us to come up to speak before the state Senate. An important background-check bill was being debated that day, and they were just a few votes short of what they needed to pass. I was happy to help.

Action on gun-violence laws had moved to statehouses across the country. Connecticut, Colorado, Maryland, and New York had passed laws strengthening background checks, banning some semiautomatic weapons, and regulating large-capacity magazines. Given the roadblocks in Congress,

Gabby and I understood that statehouses offered our best chance to pass laws aimed at reducing gun violence, so we had begun directing our time and resources there.

In Dover, I first met with Governor Markell. The Democrat had proposed a law that would close a loophole in state law by requiring background checks for gun transfers between private parties. Like the Manchin-Toomey legislation, the Delaware bill included many exceptions, such as transfers to immediate family members and qualified law enforcement officers.

In testimony to a packed hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I said: “We don’t come to the debate on gun violence as victims. We offer our voices as Americans.” I talked about our commitment to the Second Amendment.

“We take that right very seriously,” I testified, and “we would never, ever give it up—just like Gabby would never relinquish her gun, and I would never relinquish mine. But rights demand responsibility. And this right does not extend to criminals. It does not extend to the mentally ill.”

I reminded the senators that “88 percent of Delaware voters support requiring all private gun sales go through a licensed dealer and be subject to a background check.”

The committee passed the tougher, new law.

“A win!” Governor Markell texted me later that day. The legislature passed the bill and Markell signed it into law in May.

* * *

In Washington, the Senate voted on the Manchin-Toomey bill as I was in Philadelphia, preparing to speak on gun violence at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice.

We followed the count—vote by vote.

Begich, Heitkamp, Pryor, and Baucus voted no. The four Democrats we needed declined to support Manchin-Toomey.

Jeff Flake voted no.

In the final tally, 54 voted in favor, 46 against. Four Republicans, including Arizona’s John McCain, supported the bill. Though we achieved a majority, we failed to reach the required 60. We lost.

Patricia Maisch, our friend who had made sure Jared Loughner could not reach another magazine and reload after he shot Gabby that horrible morning in Tucson, was in the Senate gallery.

“Shame on you!” she screamed when Vice President Joe Biden read the final vote. As officers escorted Maisch from the building, she had a few choice words for the senators.

“They are an embarrassment to this country, that they don’t have any compassion or care for people who have been taken brutally from their families,” she said. “I hate them.”

* * *

Gabby had a quieter reaction. She and Pia Carusone watched the vote from Vice President Biden’s ceremonial office inside the Capitol. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, another powerful woman in Washington who had been a longtime friend of Gabby’s, had joined Gabby after she had voted. Also in the room was a young veteran who had had both legs and one arm amputated during service in Afghanistan. Like many veterans, he was in favor of some reasonable changes to our gun laws, having seen firsthand how powerful weapons were—and how dangerous they could be when in the wrong hands.

Most people in the room were chatting while the vote was underway, but Gabby never took her eyes off the screen. She sat directly in front of the television, intently watching the proceedings.

After the vote had been read out, Biden joined the somber group in his office. He spent a few minutes with the veteran and then walked over to where Gabby was sitting. “I am so sorry, Gabby,” he said. “This is a despicable day in the Senate.” It seemed to Gabby as if Biden were personally apologizing on behalf of the body he had served in for so long.

The vice president then invited Gabby to join the president in the White House. Pia and Gabby rode in the vice-presidential motorcade up Pennsylvania Avenue. Biden, in the seat next to her, offered Gabby his hopeful take on the “despicable” events of the afternoon. Sensible gunrights measures would pass eventually, he told us: it wasn’t a question of if but when. The country, he told her, always rejects extreme views in the end. Americans are a reasonable, responsible people, he told her—and their views will eventually win out.

On the lightning-quick car ride between the Capitol and the White House ( just try it with no traffic!), Biden had summed up the founding principles of Americans for Responsible Solutions.

“Copyright © 2014 by Gabrielle Giffords and Mark E. Kelly. From the book "Enough: Our Fight to Keep America Safe from Gun Violence" by Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.”

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