What Gabrielle Giffords Owes Congress

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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"We have a problem," former Representative Gabrielle Giffords says in a new television ad. In halting, elliptical speech, impaired by the brain damage she suffered when she was shot in the head two years ago, she explains: "Where we shop; where we pray; where our children go to school. But there are solutions we can agree on, even gun owners like us. Take it from me. Congress must act. Let's get this done."

Giffords is referring to the package of gun control legislation President Barack Obama proposed in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., last year. Her endorsement -- and her embodiment of both the exorbitant cost of gun violence and the courage it takes to overcome it -- is admirable.

Still, I couldn't help wondering how much more powerful her pitch might be if she discussed the views she held on guns before she became a victim.

As a member of Congress, Giffords co-sponsored legislation to enable a gun owner with a concealed carry permit to carry a concealed firearm in any state, regardless of state laws. She voted to allow loaded guns in national parks. In 2009 when an armed man dropped his gun onto the ground at one of Gifford's "Congress on Your Corner" constituent meetings, eerily presaging the violence to come, she didn't make a fuss.

"When you represent a district that includes the homes of the O.K. Corral and Tombstone, 'The Town Too Tough to Die' nothing's a surprise," Giffords told the Arizona Republic.

Gun violence ruined, post facto, whatever humor that remark might have conveyed. It changed everything for Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly.

Giffords is an innocent victim. She did nothing to deserve her fate. But she is also a former member of Congress from a gun-toting district, one who clearly felt the pressures that compel otherwise responsible politicians to oppose sensible laws and to make light of the kind of reckless behavior that kills.

It took a hideous personal tragedy for Giffords to become a full-throated champion of universal background checks, though the need for such legislation has long been obvious.

"Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting you," Giffords recently told members of a Senate committee. Next time, instead of exhortations, maybe Giffords could explain why she was reticent to support gun safety laws when she was a lawmaker. I suspect the answer is plain: She was afraid of losing her seat. It would have been an entirely reasonable fear, one shared by many honest politicians past and present.

Exposing such fears is a useful exercise. And if the fears were addressed directly by Giffords herself, in her determined, broken cadence, it's possible she might induce some contemplation among her former colleagues -- bringing some needed perspective to the nature of their fear, and to their understanding of the new nature of hers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net