What I've Learned: Gabby Giffords

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Photo credit: Wil Giffords
Photo credit: Wil Giffords
Photo credit: WILLIAMS & HIRAKAWA
Photo credit: WILLIAMS & HIRAKAWA

Gabby Giffords, 52, is a former congresswoman from Arizona. On January 8, 2011, she was shot in the head in an assassination attempt during a public event outside Tucson. The gunman then opened fire on the crowd, killing six and injuring thirteen. Today she leads a national-gun-safety advocacy group called Giffords. A documentary about her, Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down, is in theaters now and will be available on CNN in the fall. She lives in Tucson with her husband, former astronaut and current U.S. senator Mark Kelly. This interview was conducted by email.

I liked to go hunting with my parents. I’m not against guns. I still own guns even today. Safely, of course.

I don’t think of my assailant. He took so much away from me, and even more away from the families of the six people he murdered. At Jared Lee Loughner’s sentencing hearing, my husband [former astronaut and current U. S. senator Mark Kelly] told him, “You have decades upon decades to contemplate what you did. But after today, after this moment, here and now, Gabby and I are done thinking about you.”

I’d rather spend my energy on channeling that pain into purpose than giving him another ounce of myself.

I think of forgiveness as tied to—but distinct from—acceptance.

Forty-five thousand Americans died from gun violence in 2020, and many more sustained life-altering injuries, like I did in 2011. Do I think it’s realistic or fair to ask the families of those forty-five thousand Americans to forgive the person who stole their loved one from them? No. And same for those who were shot and survived.

Same for politicians who refuse to act on gun violence.

Everything I learned about politics, I learned from mucking horse stalls as a girl.

I rode horses a lot growing up. The best lesson I ever got from my parents was to get back in the saddle when I fell off.

On the inside of my wedding band, Mark inscribed the words “You’re the closest to heaven I’ve ever been.” I’m so proud of the work he’s done, both on this planet and above it. All in all, I highly recommend marrying an astronaut.

I never was worried when he went into space—though of the two of us, we never could have predicted that I’d be the one with the more dangerous job.

I don’t have a memory of the shooting—I remember where I parked my car that day and the gloves I was wearing because the morning was so cold. And that’s it.

More than a month after I was shot, Mark had to explain what happened, and it took me much longer to really reckon with the extent of my injuries. I cried a lot in those early days for the lives that were lost on January 8, 2011, and for what was taken from those of us who survived.

Singing is often easier for people living with aphasia because the language function sits in the left hemisphere of the brain—where the bullet tore through when I was shot—while the music function is largely located in the right hemisphere of the brain. So I like to sing not only because of my lifelong love of music, from taking French-horn lessons as a girl to doing musical theater, but also because it’s often an easier way to express myself.

Photo credit: Joshua Lott - Getty Images
Photo credit: Joshua Lott - Getty Images

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is one of my favorite songs to belt out in the car.

Music was really important for my recovery, which led to a lot of people finding out that I was a U2 fan. Bono and the band were so kind to reach out over the years and wish me well during my recovery. In the summer of 2011, Mark recorded a segment at the International Space Station where he said, “Looking forward to coming home—tell my wife I love her very much. She knows.” U2 used it as the intro for “Beautiful Day” at every concert during their tour that summer.

The gun lobby has spent decades pushing the narrative that owning a gun makes you safer, and that being allowed to carry a gun around in public is an exercise of freedom. They don’t, and it’s not.

Freedom is being able to exist in public spaces without having to worry whether someone next to you has a gun.

I get asked a lot if I’m bitter about what could have been. I can honestly say that I’m not. This acceptance has taken me a while to come by, and I won’t pretend it’s been easy, but that’s been one of the keys to my recovery.

I do speech-therapy homework every single day. If I think about the enormity of the task I have before me—healing my brain from a gunshot wound!—it can feel overwhelming. So instead, I focus on completing the exercise in front of me, knowing that if I do that hundreds of times, in time that homework will retrain and rewire my brain to make it easier for me to access words that the aphasia has placed out of reach.

I know the importance of building rest into my day. You can’t go at 110 percent all the time!

What does success look like? When gun violence isn’t at epidemic proportions, when it’s no longer the leading cause of death for children and a threat to our democracy, when kids no longer do lockdown drills at school and parents no longer live in fear of getting a call that their son or daughter is never coming home again.

If I hadn’t gotten into politics? Maybe a salsa-dancing instructor? The music, the movement—I feel so alive when I’m dancing. Getting shot robbed me of my ease of movement, but it didn’t take away my rhythm!

This story appears in the September 2022 issue of Esquire. Subscribe here.

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