CHUGIAK, ALASKA – It was day two of Gabrielle Giffords’ whirlwind nationwide tour to revive the push for tougher gun laws. The former congresswoman’s husband, Mark Kelly, woke up early, placed his black case of firearms into the car trunk and raced across a vast stretch of Alaskan highway to practice target shooting.
If the gun debate were a war, then Kelly was breaching enemy territory. Reporters were asked not to disclose the name of the shooting range because its owners did not want it linked with Giffords’ “Rights and Responsibilities” tour. The awning that shielded Kelly as he loaded his weapons sported a sign thanking one of the range’s key sponsors: Friends of the National Rifle Association.
Kelly, a former astronaut and fighter pilot, fired away — first with a shotgun and later with a Winchester Model 70, an iconic hunting rifle that’s powerful enough to kill caribou.
Giffords took her turn at a shooting range outside Las Vegas the day before, extending her left arm and firing a pistol for the first time since before January 2011, when she was gunned down and nearly killed at a constituent meet-and-greet in Tucson, Arizona.
The visits were part of a carefully orchestrated trip last week to display the couple’s affinity for firearms in states with strong gun traditions. Their hope is to convince fellow gun owners of the virtues of stricter regulations. With Second Amendment rights, they say, come responsibilities.
At each stop — from the nation’s largest public shooting range in Las Vegas to a 1950s-themed diner in Mandan, North Dakota — another message also was clear: We’re not Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York, who preaches gun control and bankrolls television ads assailing lawmakers who cross him.
Instead, Giffords and Kelly employ a softer touch. Armed with fresh polling data showing overwhelming support for expanding background checks in even the reddest pockets of the nation, the couple tells nervous politicians that they can vote “yes” and still keep their jobs.
On Tuesday in Alaska, Kelly trained his attention on Mark Begich, one of four Democratic senators who voted against a background-checks bill in the spring. Kelly’s guest at the shooting range that morning was Tom Begich, the senator’s brother and informal adviser.
The event underscored the difficulty of changing the senator’s mind. When a reporter asked questions, Tom Begich said not to read anything political into his appearance. He said that he would have been foolish to turn down a chance to go shooting with a former astronaut, that he and Kelly mostly talked about hunting bears, and that he did not officially work for his brother or represent his views. “We just have Thanksgiving and Christmas together,” he said.
He added: “You’re asking my opinion about background checks? I probably shouldn’t share that with you.”
Throughout her tour, Giffords has been pleading with anyone who will listen to do what she believes is the morally courageous thing. At the range in Nevada, where she and Kelly traveled to pressure another naysayer, Republican Sen. Dean Heller, Giffords spoke in her halting and emotional style.
“Stopping gun violence takes courage — the courage to do what’s right, the courage of new ideas,” she said. “I’ve seen great courage when my life was on the line. Now is the time to come together. Be responsible. Democrats and Republicans, everyone — everyone — we must do something. Fight, fight, fight. Be bold, be courageous. The nation is counting on you.”
Giffords repeated her statement elsewhere, leaving many listeners in tears. She is fully alert and understands the conversations around her. But once one of the most articulate members of Congress, she struggles to convey her thoughts now. She communicates through her eyes, and her smile, although her sentences are coming a little easier these days as a result of intensive speech therapy. She struggles to walk, too, dragging her right leg, which is partly paralyzed. But Kelly, who sometimes clocks her steps with a stopwatch, says her pace is quickening.
The Arizona Democrat, whose miraculous recovery from a point-blank gunshot wound to her head inspired the nation, is the emotional counterweight to the NRA, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.
The couple’s super PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions, has raised more than $11 million since it was formed after December’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Giffords is a gun enthusiast from the rugged desert West, while Kelly, a son of police officers, grew up in New Jersey with guns in his kitchen cabinet. They preach “gun responsibility” rather than “gun control,” and hope to sway enough lawmakers to restart a debate on Capitol Hill over expanding background checks.
“They’re the patient capital this movement needs. They’re willing to work as hard as it takes for as long as it takes,” said Bruce Reed, chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden and the White House’s point person on guns.
Aboard their chartered jet, as it crossed over Canada en route from Alaska to North Dakota late Tuesday, Kelly said Giffords is aware of the pressures that led to the Senate background-check defeat.
“She’s not cynical about it,” he said. “She was a member of Congress for three terms. She knows how this system works.”
The night before beginning their tour in Las Vegas, Kelly said Giffords told him she was ready to shoot. She hadn’t fired a gun since a few months before what Kelly habitually refers to as “the accident.” He was concerned about her holding a weapon because her right arm, like her leg, also is partly paralyzed. “Shooting a gun is like throwing a baseball,” Kelly said. “Trying to do it with your other hand is not easy.”
Pia Carusone, Giffords’ longtime top aide and protector, assured her, “You don’t have to.”
“I want to,” Giffords replied.
So Giffords, an arm brace wrapped over her lime-colored sweater, walked into the Clark County Shooting Complex. Target posters on the wall had bull’s-eyes over the image of a person’s head. She filled out a waiver, watched a safety video and walked through the 106-degree heat to take a position at Station No. 28.
“All right, want to take a shot?” Kelly asked his wife.
Giffords extended her left arm and held steady. She fired three shots. She hit the target and smiled, barely flinching at the sound. Kelly said she does not remember being shot that January morning outside a Safeway grocery store in Tucson. “It’s like coming out of a big fog,” he said.
Later, when Kelly was shooting, Giffords sat by his side to watch. Pow, pow, pow. The casing from his rounds brushed past her and landed around her feet. She didn’t flinch.
“I’ve been shot at a number of times in war in Iraq and Kuwait, and Gabby’s been shot at and hit,” Kelly said. “We’ve talked about these things. She had her office shot out before somebody tried to assassinate her. When her office door was shot out, she didn’t quit and run and hide. She went back to work, and almost lost her life over it. Despite that, she’s back at work now. Some things are important enough that you take that kind of risk.”
As they travel around talking with political figures and enlisting grass-roots activists to join their coalition, Kelly holds up his wife’s 2010 re-election in a Republican-leaning swing district as an example of how to take tough votes and receive another term.
Giffords ventured into some of her district’s most conservative precincts to defend her votes backing President Barack Obama’s policies. She won by just 4,000 votes.
At a dinner Monday night at the Captain Cook Hotel in downtown Anchorage, Giffords and Kelly made their case to Mark Begich’s state director, his brother and an array of other influential Alaska Democrats. A poll they commissioned showed that 72 percent of Alaska voters support expanding background checks for firearm purchases.
But the senator was not there. He was vacationing on an Alaskan island outside cellphone range, said Heather Handyside, his spokeswoman.
Begich faces a tough re-election battle next year in the heavily Republican “Last Frontier.” He may have calculated that he couldn’t afford to cross the NRA, but Giffords and Kelly are trying to show him that they can have his back, too.
“Who goes to Alaska? You think Wayne LaPierre is up in Alaska meeting with people? I doubt it,” Kelly said in the interview. As he tossed back a beer, Kelly said he has reached out several times to LaPierre, the NRA leader known for his inflammatory rhetoric, to meet for coffee. But it hasn’t worked out.
Noting that LaPierre often has armed guards with him in public, Kelly said that “it’s almost like he’s been helpful in creating a world in which that’s necessary. What Gabby and I want is a world where it’s not.”
Unlike Bloomberg, whose hardball tactics have made him a scourge to middle America, Giffords and Kelly attract relatively little public criticism, including from the NRA. “Congresswoman Giffords is certainly a very compelling spokeswoman,” NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said.
But, he added,the gun vote in the spring was “the first battle in what will be a very protracted war. We have many challenges ahead.”
The seven-day, seven-state roadshow, paid for by Americans for Responsible Solutions’ nonprofit arm, has been as meticulously planned as any political campaign, with itineraries down to the minute and movements choreographed for maximum effect. Staff members map out events and vet attendees. There are “OTRs” — campaign parlance for off-the-record events — such as buying smoked salmon in Anchorage.
While flying between stops, Giffords works with her speech therapist, plays Angry Birds on her iPad or naps under a blue blanket. Wherever the plane lands, Kelly plays catch on the tarmac with Giffords’ service dog, Nelson, a golden retriever.
Aides are sensitive to the image Giffords and Kelly project. Arun Chaudhary, Obama’s former campaign and White House videographer, has been filming videos for the group’s website. Aides try to make sure cameras capture Giffords being helped by Kelly rather than one of the two nurses traveling with them, and they keep her wheelchair out of view.
The events are a mixture of news conferences and small meetings with supporters. In Fargo, North Dakota, where they planned to see about 20 people, they walked into a coffee shop on Wednesday to find more than 100.
“North Dakota!” Giffords said, pumping her fist in the air. “I like it. I like it a lot.”
She climbed the steps of a ladder so the crowd could see her, grabbing the back of Kelly’s belt for balance.
Earlier Wednesday, Giffords visited Kroll’s Diner — just up the street from the Mandan home of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, another Democrat who voted against background checks. Giffords settled into a booth, picked at a cinnamon bun and met like-minded North Dakotans. She clutched their hands, kissed them on the cheeks and patiently listened to their stories. She responded with winks and nods and words such as, “Wow” and “Good stuff.”
Carl Jacobsen, 60, sat on the other side of the diner and watched. “It’s amazing to see her survive like this,” he said. “To have the gumption, the courage to get out and do this tour — I don’t think I would have that strength.”
Outside, a few others had gathered in protest. The men pulled a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag off their truck — a business vehicle that pumps sewage out of portable toilets branded with the logo “Turd Burglar” — and held it up in the diner window.
Giffords saw the flag and waved. “Hello! Hello! Hello!” she said, smiling.
Later, Kelly looked around for them, wanting to see if they could find some common ground. But the men had driven away.