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Gabrielle Giffords fights for gun control

Ex-representative, a shooting survivor, gains new role

Gabrielle Giffords is the face and emotional dynamism behind a new advocacy group and a separate political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions, dedicated to reducing gun violence.

AFP/Getty Images/File

Gabrielle Giffords is the face and emotional dynamism behind a new advocacy group and a separate political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions, dedicated to reducing gun violence.

TUCSON — Gabrielle Giffords looked slightly stricken as she considered the question: Would she feel bad about appearing in a political advertisement against her former House colleagues who declined to stand with her on guns? ‘‘Yes,’’ she said, it would be painful.

“Sometimes you have to do things that are hard,’’ said Mark E. Kelly, Giffords’ husband, as she tucked herself close to him on their couch. Giffords nodded, as she often does when Kelly— as he often does — intuits the many thoughts she is still unable to express fully. ‘‘Really hard,’’ she added.

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Giffords, a former Democratic representative from Arizona, a gun owner, an astronaut’s wife, a shooting survivor, and an incipient gun-control advocate, is settling into the third act of her public life.

Her career as a lawmaker is behind her, but so is her role as the fragile, slightly mysterious victim in the months after she was shot in a parking lot here just over two years ago.

Now, she is the face and emotional dynamism behind a new advocacy group and a separate political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions, dedicated to reducing gun violence. It is an effort, she said, that gives her ‘‘purpose.’’

Speaking in full sentences is still a struggle, and she has regular therapy sessions to help recover her speech and to manage her other impairments. Her vision is impaired, and her right leg and arm are largely paralyzed. She can move her shoulder, her hip, and slightly her foot.

The rest of her time is largely spent preparing for the legislative battles, political campaigns, and potential faceoffs with friends and former colleagues that will be waged through her month-old organizations.

Giffords and Kelly are already looking at governor contests, congressional special elections, and 2014 races. They hope to influence the outcome by leveraging the power of their names and their story, an effort presaged last month when Giffords lit up a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with her brief and powerful plea: ‘‘We must do something.’’

For nearly two decades, the National Rifle Association has succeeded in rewarding lawmakers who backed legislation supporting gun rights and firearm manufacturers and punishing those who did not. Those efforts largely overwhelmed the voices on the opposing side.

But after the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December that left 20 elementary school pupils dead, Giffords and Kelly — with several others such as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York — are trying to sway races from the other side.

Bloomberg’s political action committee, Independence USA, was widely credited with bringing an end to the career of Representative Joe Baca, a California Democrat, last year after it spent $3.3 million on television ads and mailers attacking him.

That PAC is now focusing on Debbie Halvorson, a Democrat and former congresswoman running in a special election to succeed former Representative Jesse L. Jackson Jr. of Chicago.

These efforts are ‘‘one of the most important things that has happened,’’ said Garen J. Wintemute, director of the violence prevention research program at the University of California, Davis. ‘‘What has been completely missing is the financial counterweight to the NRA.’’

Giffords’s two organizations have already raised millions of dollars from small online donations and from bigger gifts, including $1 million from Steve and Amber Mostyn, Houston trial lawyers, and a six-figure donation from Bloomberg. The political action committee will hold a fundraiser before the State of the Union address Tuesday night in Washington at one of Giffords’ favorite restaurants.

“We’re going to have to have money to be effective,’’ Kelly said.

Bloomberg brings some of his substantial fortune to the cause, Wintemute said, but ‘‘what he is not, and what Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly are, are personally compelling representatives of the position that firearm violence need not be tolerated.’’

The paradox of Giffords’s role is clear. As a gun owner (she and her husband went target shooting just a few months ago) and a Westerner whose recovery has been watched closely across the nation, she is an effective spokeswoman for some changes to gun laws. Yet speaking is still her hardest task.

Kelly, a retired astronaut and former naval aviator who has emerged as a forceful, politically astute advocate for his wife’s cause, fills in the verbal blanks on conference calls and in meetings with donors and members.

Giffords’s liability is in some ways her best asset; her labored speech is a stark reminder that even a member of Congress can be gunned down in broad daylight by someone who is mentally ill and armed with high-capacity magazines.

Her short plea to Congress that ‘‘you must act’’ was the most memorable moment of a several-hour Senate hearing. ‘‘With just a few words,’’ said John Feinblatt, Bloomberg’s chief policy adviser, ‘‘she was able to express the feelings of a nation.’’

Their uphill battle is bringing along lawmakers who feel pressed by the NRA to resist enhanced background checks and limits on high-capacity ammunition, as Giffords once did. ‘‘Gabby, as a member of Congress, knows where they are coming from,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘We believe strongly that the Second Amendment affords every American the right to defend their home and defend their property with a gun. But there needs to be reasonable limits.’’

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