DOVER, N.H. — Thirty months after she was shot through the head, former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords sits in a New Hampshire restaurant facing parents of children killed in the nation’s latest school shooting.
They are here to talk political strategy, but Giffords doesn’t say much. She doesn’t have to.
The 43-year-old Democrat has become the face of the fight for gun control — a woman now known as much for her actions as her words as she recovers from a 2011 attack that forever changed her life and ended six others. Giffords has already traveled more than 8,000 miles this week, her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, at her side, encouraging political leaders from Alaska to Maine to have the courage to defy the National Rifle Association.
“I don’t think any of us thought this was going to be easy,” Kelly tells three parents of children killed in the Newton, Conn., school shootings, with Giffords next to him, nodding her agreement. “This is not going to be a quick fix. But we’re trying.”
The couple is nearing the end of a seven-state-in-seven-day tour across America, meeting with allies and opponents alike to generate momentum for federal legislation that would expand background checks on gun purchases. It’s a scaled-back version of a broad legislative package to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines proposed in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting rampage that left 20 children dead. But even scaled back, the measure was defeated in the Senate in April and has stalled in a divided Congress now preparing for its summer recess.
As Giffords’ tour stretched into Maine on Saturday, the couple shared a private lunch with former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, at their estate in Kennebunkport, Maine.
It’s unclear if Giffords and Kelly discussed gun control with the Bushes, who are personal acquaintances.
Giffords’ cross-country trek is the centerpiece of a summertime campaign designed to pressure elected officials in their own backyards. At the same time, her recently formed super PAC and related nonprofit group have ambitious plans to expand their political clout through the 2014 midterm elections and beyond. Organizers say that the group, known as Americans for Responsible Solutions, is expected to raise at least $20 million to fuel paid television ads and political activities to coincide with the next election, the next gun control vote or both.
But this week, Giffords and Kelly are playing a more personal role. They are eating pie, sharing hugs and having frank conversations to connect with voters in traditional gun-owning states whose leaders have been largely reluctant to support expanded background checks in the face of NRA opposition.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll in mid-May found that 67 percent of Americans felt the Senate wrongly rejected the background check bill.
A Pew Research Center poll conducted in early May found 81 percent favor making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks, support that transcends party lines. Another 73 percent of respondents said that if the background check bill were brought up for another vote, Congress should pass it.
But there is little sign of movement in Washington.
The cross-country tour is run with the efficiency and detail of a presidential campaign, with schedules planned down to the minute. Surrounded by a handful of young staffers and her service dog, Nelson, Giffords and Kelly use private planes and at times helicopters, visiting venues usually frequented by politicians.
Giffords and Kelly know they will face continued opposition, although it comes in all forms on the tour.
Giffords exited one event through a back entrance to avoid a small group of protesters, including one carrying an AR-15 assault rifle. Shortly before they left, the man appeared to be napping in the shade with his gun at his side.
“Apparently, he got tired,” Kelly later said at the dinner with Newtown parents. “You can’t sleep when you’ve got your loaded AR-15 next to you. This is not responsible.”