Former Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — In the three years since she was severely injured in a mass shooting at a political event, Gabrielle Giffords has made an impressive recovery, learned to walk again and founded a national political organization. On Wednesday, while others gathered for bell-ringing and flag-raising ceremonies, she will mark the anniversary by skydiving.
The former congresswoman's jump will be broadcast on NBC's "Today" show on Thursday.
In Tucson, about 100 residents attended a ceremony Wednesday morning outside the University of Arizona Medical Center, where the injured were treated. A bell was rung once for each of the six killed and the 12 wounded. A pastor also read a prayer and then a moment of silence followed at the event, one of several planned in the city.
"The wounds are still there. Time helps, but it doesn't heal all the wounds," Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said. "I think the commemorations are, in large part, recognition of our community's collective care and compassion and grit to go on."
According to a post Giffords wrote Wednesday morning on her Facebook page, she plans to skydive in southern Arizona with her friend, former Navy SEAL Jimmy Hatch. Giffords also mentions regaining movement in her right arm.
Vice-President Joe Biden called Giffords on Wednesday to wish her good luck on her jump, according to Biden's office.
"Gabby's courage & determination has been absolutely inspirational," Biden wrote on his office's Twitter account.
Giffords still struggles to speak and walk, but has become a leader of Americans for Responsible Solutions, a national organization she founded with her husband, Mark Kelly, to rival the powerful pro-gun lobby.
The group struggled to bring about any major change at the federal and state level in its first year of existence, but the couple is confident they laid the groundwork for success in future election cycles.
"The legacy of any day where there's a mass shooting and loss of life is, I think, a chance to reflect on who these people were and what they did, particularly the people who died," Kelly, a former astronaut, said in an interview with The Associated Press on the eve of the anniversary. "But it's also a chance to look forward and see how we can make changes and reduce the numbers of instances like this that we have."
Skydiving experts say it's relatively safe for someone with Giffords' physical struggles to make a jump. Nancy Koreen, a spokeswoman for the United States Parachute Association (USPA), says almost anyone — depending on the extent of their disability or injuries — can do a tandem or solo jump. It was not immediately known what type of jump Giffords plans. But a tandem jump, where the jumper dives strapped to an instructor, would require less training.
"On a tandem skydive, the instructor manages most of all the physical side of the skydive. A lot of people with physical disabilities like paralysis or multiple sclerosis or other disabilities that make them unable to walk, they safely do tandem skydives all the time," Koreen said.
The USPA is a nonprofit that creates skydiving training programs and safety guidelines. According to Koreen, in some cases, equipment can be modified to accommodate disabled jumpers. She says it's not uncommon for disabled people to skydive.
"Even if it's just for a couple of minutes, they feel liberated and free and can experience the same joys in life that people without disabilities can experience," Koreen said.
Officials have announced plans for a permanent memorial in remembrance of the shootings expected to be located downtown at the Old Pima County Courthouse and in an adjacent park. The sites would display some of the thousands of items, including letters, candles and flags that were placed in makeshift memorials after the shooting.
Some of the items will be on display Wednesday at libraries in Tucson.
"Like any community that experiences a tragedy, the citizens want to be connected to it in some way to show their appreciation and understanding and sympathy," said Stephen Brigham, president of the January 8 Memorial Foundation. "Everyone we talked to reinforced the importance of providing a place to go and remember that tragedy, but also a place to remember and celebrate how the community responded."
Giffords and Kelly formed their organization just weeks after the massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Since then, Congress has done nothing to tighten any of the nation's gun laws. Some states, including Colorado and Delaware, pushed ahead with their own gun-control measures, while others like Arizona, Giffords' home state, moved in the opposite direction, passing a law that requires municipalities to sell weapons surrendered at buyback programs instead of destroying them.
Kelly said his group has signed up more than a half-million people, and between January 2013 and July 2013, they raised more than $11 million.
"So we're going to have the resources to be effective in the next election cycle in 2014," he said.
Kelly is a gun owner and supporter of the Second Amendment who wishes he could work with organizations like the National Rifle Association to preserve gun rights while keeping weapons out of the hands of dangerous criminals and the mentally unstable.
In an opinion piece for The New York Times on Wednesday, Giffords writes about her struggles to recover, calling it "gritty, painful, frustrating work, every day."
"I had planned to spend my 40s continuing my public service and starting a family. I thought that by fighting for the people I cared about and loving those close to me, I could leave the world a better place. And that would be enough," she wrote. "Instead, I've spent the past three years learning how to talk again, how to walk again."
Still, Giffords says she will not give up.
"We're not daunted. We know that the gun lobby, which makes money by preventing sensible change, relies on dramatic disappointments to wound us, reduce our power, push us back on our heels," Giffords wrote. "Our fight is a lot more like my rehab. Every day, we must wake up resolved and determined."
Jared Lee Loughner was sentenced in November 2012 to seven consecutive life sentences, plus 140 years, after he pleaded guilty to 19 federal charges in the shooting.
Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, resigned from Congress.
Associated Press writer Terry Tang in Phoenix contributed to this report.