A packed house of enthusiastic admirers filled the Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland last night to greet former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly.
Giffords became a national symbol for gun control when she was shot in the head on Jan. 8, 2011 outside a Safeway store in her Tuscon area district. It was to be the first of her "Congress on Your Corner" gatherings of the year. Shooter Jared Lee Loughner killed six that day, and injured 19, including the Congresswoman. Daniel Hernandez Jr, one of Giffords' interns, applied immediate first aid on the Congresswoman and is credited with saving her life.
"If I could I would trade my own life to bring my constituents back," Giffords said last night. "Especially 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green who was born on 9/11 but didn't live to see her 10th birthday."
With a slow and deliberate limp, Giffords walked on stage. The audience jumped to its feet and cheered.
She was asked what she was most grateful for. "For friends and family," she replied. Then she stopped, trying to gather her thoughts. "For friends and family," she repeated, then stopped again. She appeared frustrated. Kelly started to speak for her.
"No," she said, holding up her hand. She took a deep breath, then started over. "For friends and family. To live everyday to the fullest. It's been a long hard haul, but I'm getting better. My spirit is strong. I'm still fighting to make the world a better place."
She urged the crowd to get involved in their communities. "Be your best," she said.
Then, for about 30 minutes, Giffords and Kelly talked about their current lives, which includes gun control advocacy. Together, they run a nonprofit called Americans For Responsible Solutions. "What can we do to keep guns out of the dangerously mentally ill?" asked Kelly. "How do we stop gun trafficking?"
Kelly pointed to the mammoth NRA and the powerful influence it wields. He said that he and Giffords would like the gun control groups, most of whom are relatively small, to perhaps merge as one in order to give gun control advocates more leverage on the playing field.
They both said they forgive the shooter Jared Lee Loughner, who was sentenced to life in prison. "I'm sad he didn't get help," said Giffords. "He was kicked out of school because he was so mentally ill, they got him no help. Everyone who knows him knows he would never have done this on meds." Kelly pointed out that 85 percent of U.S. kids who die are killed because of gun violence.
Giffords talked about her life now -- three years after she was gunned down. She assured the crowd that she feels pretty good and stays optimistic. "I do yoga twice a week," she said. "I'm taking Spanish lessons, I'm studying the French horn."
Once fluent in Spanish, her brain injuries robbed her of the ability to speak the language. Now she's determined to learn it again.
And lastly, Giffords would like to spend time with her husband. "I hope to travel the world with Mark," Giffords said.
Clarification: Gifford's staff called to clarify what Kelly stated about gun control. He said that Kelly noted the size, strength and influence of the NRA gun lobby. Kelly feels that it might make sense for the various gun control groups to merge at some point with each of them focused on slightly different strategies and priorities. Americans For Responsible Solutions works closely with all of them.