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Gabby Giffords is still fighting for gun violence victims, years after she became one

Former U.S. representative and gun control advocate Gabby Giffords stands for a portrait before the pre-game ceremony begins at Fenway Park in Boston, Mass. on June 16, 2022.
Former U.S. representative and gun control advocate Gabby Giffords stands for a portrait before the pre-game ceremony begins at Fenway Park in Boston, Mass. on June 16, 2022.

Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park on Thursday. The crowd cheered as she took the ball in her left hand, lobbed it forward, then held up that same hand in celebration.

Giffords used to be right-handed. But her right side is now partially paralyzed after she was shot in the head by a gunman at a constituent event outside Tucson on January 8, 2011. Six people were killed, including a 9-year-old girl named Christina-Taylor Green; federal District Court Chief Judge John Roll; and Gabe Zimmerman, one of Giffords's staffers.

Giffords had to relearn everything: How to walk, talk and, eventually, how to do everything with her non-dominant hand. So that one-second toss from the pitcher's mound represented years of work.

It was also part of Gun Violence Awareness Day at Fenway Park. The Boston Red Sox wore orange and invited spectators to do the same. Orange has become a signature of the gun violence prevention movement because it's the protective color worn by hunters in the woods.

A life's work

"January 8th, 2011 changed my life forever," Giffords said in an interview with NPR in the days before her trip to Fenway. "Our lives can change so quickly."

Along with the limited use of her right side, Giffords still struggles with aphasia, a language disorder that affects a person's abilities with speech.

While relearning her communication and motor skills after the Tucson shooting, Giffords also dedicated her life to calling for action on gun control. After the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary that left 26 people dead, including 20 children, she co-founded an advocacy group that promotes gun safety. She called it "Giffords."

And much like her physical therapy, the work has been extremely challenging. In the nearly 10 years since Sandy Hook, there have been thousands of mass shootings in the U.S., including one recently in Uvalde, Texas that felt horrifyingly familiar — 19 children and 2 teachers were killed in a classroom at Robb Elementary School on May 24.

"It can be so difficult," she said. "Losses hurt."

But the deaths in Uvalde, along with recent mass shootings in Buffalo and elsewhere around the country, have put pressure on Congress to reach a deal. A bipartisan group of senators led by Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and John Cornyn (R-Texas), proposed incentives for states to pass red-flag laws, funding for school safety and mental health resources, expanded background checks and more. With the support of 10 Republicans, the measure could overcome the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster. It still needs to be written into a bill, which is expected to come out on Sunday.

"I think something that Gabby reminds us of is that this is a marathon, not a sprint," said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords. "In much the same way that her recovery has come through the sheer aggregation of hard work, thousands upon thousands of hours of speech therapy and physical therapy. That's what the gun safety movement is."

Giffords says she feels better about the possibilities of gun safety legislation these days. When asked about this new development, Giffords replied: "Hope, hope, hope."

But is it enough?

"It's not enough," says Ambler. "But it is a critical first step."

He says seeing the Senate finally compelled to act is "significant" — not just for the gun safety movement, but for "our ability as a country and as a Congress to make progress on virtually anything."

"These laws, while not nearly as comprehensive as we need, are able to save lives. And they will."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.