On Thursday, two days before the 20th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School, former Representative Gabrielle Giffords went to Minnesota to announce the creation of a gun safety advocacy group.
The group’s agenda is predictable: It will lobby for universal background checks and an extreme risk protection law, which would allow the temporary confiscation of guns from people believed to pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.
Its composition is not: The members are all gun owners.
The group, Minnesota Gun Owners for Safety, is the second of its kind from Ms. Giffords’s namesake organization, which she founded after the shooting that almost killed her. (The first, in Colorado, started in January.) Ms. Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, who is running for Senate in Arizona, own guns themselves and argue that gun ownership can coexist with significantly stricter gun laws.
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In an interview, conducted by email and lightly edited for length, Ms. Giffords discussed the new group and reflected on what has, and hasn’t, changed in the eight years since she was shot.
Q. Gun owners have always been involved in the gun violence prevention movement in some capacity. What’s the benefit of creating formal groups specifically for them?
A. When you speak up, others listen. For too long, a few very loud voices drowned out any sensible conversation on this issue. Meanwhile, gun violence increased.
From my experiences in public service, I learned firsthand that change doesn’t happen until people start to demand it. Lawmakers pay attention when folks are organized around a goal.
In many ways, these groups echo back to when we first launched our organization. As gun owners from a state like Arizona, we felt like our viewpoint was missing from the larger debate about gun violence. We wanted to change that by lifting up more people like us.
What are you hoping to achieve with these groups?
We’ve found that many gun owners are frustrated that the gun lobby claims to be speaking for them. So one important goal for us is to provide more gun owners the opportunity to share their ideas and experiences, and take action.
Over time, I think you’ll start to see it bridge divides between people who might not always talk to each other. We don’t want conversations to stop on this issue. We want them to start.
That will help break up the power of the gun lobby, too. The gun lobby can’t hide behind money and extremist rhetoric when gun owners are coming together to push for responsible ownership, laws that save lives and a deeper appreciation for what it means to own and use firearms.
There is a big disconnect between the specific policies you’re pushing for, which are popular, and the “take your guns away” agenda that some opponents think you’re pushing for. People have been trying to bridge that gap for years, but it hasn’t gone away. What do you need to do differently?
That’s what makes Minnesota Gun Owners for Safety, and groups like it, so important. I can’t think of a better way to fix that disconnect than to show how in reality, people that love to hunt or have firearms at home for protection are also in favor of improving the background check system. Or keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.
More and more people are responding to gun violence as a personal issue. They don’t want to see their neighbors or their family or friends get shot. People are pushing back against the false notion that any action to pass laws results in less freedom. In fact, it can bring us more.
You and your husband are gun owners yourselves, yet you’re often cast as an enemy of the Second Amendment who just wants to take guns away.
For years, the gun lobby motivated supporters through fear and falsehoods. But when you travel the country and actually meet people where they are at, it becomes obvious that those lies don’t work.
Most people want their families and communities to be safe. What they fear most is what the country has become: a place where everyone is afraid that no place is safe. A park, a concert, a classroom, a church, an office — they could all be the site of another shooting. They don’t want this to be America’s reality any longer.
Look at what’s happening to the N.R.A. Its popularity is down, its leadership is fighting and it lost many of its champions in the 2018 election.
What happened? The N.R.A. shifted from an organization that actually tried to represent gun owners to a special interest group concerned with extreme politics and industry profits. When you cast the enemy as everyone who thinks differently than you, there won’t be many friends left to support you.
What approaches have you found most effective in reaching common ground with gun owners who are suspicious of your motives?
We listen. We respect the views of others. We start conversations that often end up with us agreeing on more than we think we will at the beginning. We explain our views — we use facts. But we’ll never back down from fighting for what we believe is right.
Sensible gun laws are not controversial to hunters, or parents, or a collector, or a police officer. It’s possible to have strong gun laws while also respecting the rights of responsible gun owners.
You’re as familiar as anybody, I imagine, with the false narratives that developed after the background check and assault weapons bill failed in Congress in 2013: the “nothing changed after Sandy Hook” narrative, and then the fatalistic “if Sandy Hook didn’t cause an epiphany on guns, nothing ever will” narrative. Do you run into those often? What do you say?
Yes. I tell people to remember that change is a marathon, not a sprint — and that it’s happening. It’s easy to forget how young the modern gun safety movement is. Mark and I started our organization just six years ago, after the horrific school shooting in Newtown. Since our organization began, nearly 300 gun safety laws have passed at the state level.
The House of Representatives became the first majority in a generation to pass major gun reform laws. It’s one of the signature issues of the new Congress, is being talked about by every Democrat running for president, and will be an important way to draw contrast with President Trump’s priorities and vision of the future. It’s not easy, but step by step we are making progress.
I can imagine your work is both physically and mentally draining, especially because the movement is so slow. Do you ever get discouraged?
What I took for granted before my shooting now requires hours upon hours of hard work. Speaking is difficult. Not everyone realizes it. My right arm and right leg are still mostly paralyzed. But I try to focus on the things I can do, and I draw strength from my work.
Eight years later, I’m a tougher person. More patient and more resilient, too. I have to be. But who I am has not changed. Of course I get discouraged, but I do my best to remain optimistic.