Gabby Giffords is still campaigning, this time to end gun violence
“I’m Gabby Giffords. I’m from Tucson, Arizona. January 8, 2011, changed my life forever.”
This is how my conversation with former Rep. Giffords began when I caught up with her earlier this year. It reminded me, in the best possible way, of a stump speech for the campaign she’s been leading since her congressional career ended. “I was shot in my head while meeting with my constituents. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t talk. I’ve watched gun violence destroy too many lives,” she told me via Zoom call. “After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I’ve said enough is enough. I founded a group called Giffords.” She pauses.
Then the kicker: “We are on a mission to end gun violence.”
Giffords survived a mass shooting at a constituent event on Jan 8, 2011 in Tuscon, Ariz., where 19 people were shot, six of whom died. She still struggles with aphasia: “[It] really sucks,” she told CBS News. “The words are there in my brain. I just can’t get them out!” But she finds that singing and music have helped her heal. So has her work. She regularly meets with communities, stakeholders, and experts across the country—live, via video chat, or email—to talk about solutions to the epidemic of gun violence in the U.S.
Giffords, the organization she created after the massacre in Sandy Hook, Conn., merged a few years later with the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. She says the combination has the exact mix of legal expertise and political know-how to make a dent in the problem. In spite of it all, there have been some wins. “We have flipped the script on the politics around gun safety in recent years, making this an issue that politicians are eager—not afraid—to embrace, and have passed hundreds of pieces of gun safety legislation at the state level in the meantime,” she said via email. And they are focused on electing candidates who are committed to gun safety legislation. “Politicians need to be held responsible for the safety of the communities they represent, and to be called out when they put corporate special interests above the lives of their constituents.”
By “corporate special interests,” she means the NRA.
In 2021, the Giffords organization filed a lawsuit alleging that the guns-rights group illegally used shell companies to funnel some “$35 million in unlawful, excessive, and unreported in-kind campaign contributions” to Republican candidates over three election cycles, including Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. “If we prevail, the NRA could be forced to not only cease its illegal behavior but also pay a $35 million fine to the U.S. Treasury,” she says. “Our litigation highlights corrupt political practices and attempts to hold the NRA responsible for undermining the integrity of our elections.”
For Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color which are disproportionately affected by gun violence, a different political solution is required.
Top of the list are community-based violence prevention initiatives, or CVIs, which typically connect at-risk populations with services and opportunities. They tend to be local, customized, and responsive to the unique needs of the people they serve. “What we are trying to do is lift up those solutions and bring money to them,” said Peter Ambler, Giffords organization co-founder and executive director, who joined Giffords on the call. In California, they’ve lobbied Gov. Gavin Newsom and the legislature to commit $200 million to the statewide ballot program for community-based organizations working on the local level. “We requested $5 billion as part of the budget reconciliation bill, and we do have $200 million in the omnibus appropriations bill that will be filtered through specifically for violence prevention that will get awarded to community-based organizations,” he said.
And they’re increasingly asking corporate leaders to join the conversation. It doesn’t have to be political, she says. “Making gun safety resources readily available, revisiting company policies around firearms, and creating space for employees to engage in gun safety advocacy initiatives” will help, as will investing in CVI efforts. “[There is] lifesaving work happening on the ground in the communities where they operate,” she says.
Hopefully, more is coming. Last summer, the White House announced a 15-jurisdiction CVI collaborative, a group of CVI experts, law enforcement, and elected officials to build out meaningful CVI programs and best practices.
You can learn more about Giffords’s life, work, and remarkable recovery in Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, a new documentary from co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, now in theaters.
The recent Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient wants you to know that she plans to stay very busy, continuing to support gun safety legislation candidates and gearing up for the midterm elections—here is their current list of endorsements—while making others squirm.
But she’s hard at work on herself, too.
“A lot of Zoom calls. Work, work, yoga. Twice a week. French horn, Spanish lessons, ride my bike, walking the treadmill, going to the gym,” she tells me, ticking through her days of the past two years. Yes, it’s been dark at times. But when confronted with despair in both her personal and professional life, she’s learned one thing always works. “I always try to choose to summon hope. Hope in the future is what keeps me going, and I try to use the power of my example to keep others feeling energized and hopeful too.”
For more on how Giffords works with corporate leaders, check out my recent interview with Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh, a years-long partner with the Giffords organization. You can also learn more about the CVIs Levi’s supports through its Safer Tomorrow Fund here.
This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.
On background: The naturalist edition
What to do with John James Audubon? Turns out, the naturalist and heroic father of American birding and conservationist culture….was an avowed racist. And, not just a “man of his time,” code for a racist of the clueless variety, but one who enslaved at least nine Black people.
So, here we are again.
I credit the Audubon Society for sorting this out in their own magazine by inviting J. Drew Lanham, a conservation ornithologist whose academic work focuses on the intersection of race, place, and nature, to weigh in:
"Why muddy the ornithological water with race? Because racism pervades everything—even our love of birds. To see it blatantly codified in black and white is sad proof of a deeply ingrained bias. South Carolina Audubon Society reports from the early 1900s blame Black people for the decline in songbirds and waterfowl. Arthur T. Wayne, a luminary among South Carolina ornithologists, placed “negroes” among a litany of agents (alongside raccoons and house cats) deleterious to bobwhite quail in the book Birds of South Carolina. Racism even found its way into later ornithological texts. Sprunt and Chamberlain’s seminal book South Carolina Birdlife, published in 1949, cites the colloquial name of Double-crested Cormorants as “niggergeese”—a name for a bird perceived as deceptive and useless that’s still being thrown around in duck blinds today. Perspective matters, and there is every reason to be concerned if institutions insist on not changing for the sake of tradition or donors easily offended."
People like Audubon, along with other early conservationists, racist (and beloved) John Muir, and racist (and vile) Madison Grant, are part of the reason why people of color often feel unwelcome and unsafe enjoying the outdoors. And for example, if you come from a people who have a legacy of not being allowed to swim at public pools, then it can limit your options for summertime fun. And memories.
In the spirit of good memories, I’m sharing some long-ago photos of Black families enjoying the sand and spray at Chicken Bone Beach, a segregated beach for African-Americans near Atlantic City, New Jersey. John W. Mosely, a self-taught photographer, documented the simple joys of time spent at Chicken Bone Beach in the 1950s and '60s, and even captured some happy family moments of a famous preacher and civil rights organizer looking snappy in his swimwear. It's a reminder that even the cultivated outdoors had been off-limits to so many for so long that archival photos are necessary to remind us what was always possible.
“My brothers are notorious. They have not been to prison. They have been imprisoned. The prison is not a place you enter. It is no place. My brothers are notorious. They do regular things, like wait. On my birthday they say my name. They will never forget that we are named. What is that memory?”
—Claudia Rankine, in her essay, “In Memory of Trayvon Martin”.
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