Guest Commentary

Two years after the Tucson tragedy and weeks after Newtown, Rep. Barber reflects on the causes and effects of gun violence

What have we learned in the past two years?

How has it changed all of us?

Those are the questions I have been asked over and over since the tragic shootings of Jan. 8, 2011. And certainly at this time of the year, as the anniversary of that terrible day comes around for the second time, the questions are more frequent.

The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has added urgency, renewing a call to address the issues that lead to mass shootings.

After six people were killed in our city two years ago, it is tragic to know that the violence has continued. Within the past year, seven people were killed in Oakland, Calif.; 12 in Aurora, Colo.; six in Oak Creek, Wis.; five in Minneapolis and 26 in Newtown, Conn.

That's a horrifying toll: 56 lives lost in five mass shootings. In less than nine months.

We all remember the calls for action after our own tragedy. And we all know that those calls led to no action or changes.

As a father and a grandfather, I am deeply affected by the murder of 20 little ones and six adults in Newtown.  I have two granddaughters the same age as the children who were killed.  It could have been their school.

As the survivor of a mass shooting, I am determined that no one else should have to endure such grief and loss. And as a member of Congress, I am unwavering in my commitment to take a leadership role in pushing forward with legislation to make a real difference.

Many of these mass shootings—including the one in Tucson—came at the nexus of two issues: an untreated serious mental illness and the easy access to military-style weapons.

It is crucial to point out that this combination rarely causes problems. As Michael Gerson noted recently in the Washington Post, there are an estimated 270 million guns in the country and more than 11 million people who have a serious mental illness.

It is a small percentage of individuals and guns that leads to tragedy. But we must act to prevent future occurrences. This requires that we act to expand mental health awareness and treatment services and to prevent access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

I have joined a congressional task force that will develop needed legislation.

Shortly after I was elected, I co-sponsored legislation that would be a step forward in getting help for those with serious mental illness. It was the Mental Health First Aid Higher Education Act, which would provide training to help people identify and respond to signs of mental illness and deal with a psychiatric crisis. The bill did not pass last year, but I am committed to reintroducing it this session.

It also is essential that we protect state and federal funding for mental-health services.

Looking back at our community and how it has moved toward healing in the past two years, many positive things have happened to bring good out of that horrific day.

Jan. 8, 2011 was a day that shocked our community. It broke our hearts and we struggle still to come to grips with it.

Six families lost loved ones and their hearts will ache for as long as they live. My family and the families of the 12 others who were wounded had their lives forever changed.

I, and many others, have wounds that will never leave us. But we move forward and focus on healing. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head that morning, has made an inspirational recovery. In the last year, she returned home, and we in Tucson are proud to have her back.

I never will forget seeing my dear colleague die at my side—a young man I worked closely with every day for more than five years. Gabe Zimmerman was the first person we hired to work in Rep. Giffords' office and he was beloved by constituents and staff alike.

He was my go-to guy and a human being with so much compassion and a great commitment to service. Gabe was a social worker whose brief life was dedicated to helping others.

We lost Judge John Roll, a jurist who strove always for fairness. He was respected by prosecutors, defense attorneys and all who entered his courtroom.

We lost Christina-Taylor Green, a promising 9-year-old with a future that was beyond bright. She wanted to learn about government and meet her congresswoman—and she died because of that.

We lost Dorwan Stoddard, who died while shielding his beloved wife, Mavy.

 We lost Phyllis Schneck, a dedicated mother, wife, friend and Christian who lived a full life by serving those around her.

 We lost Dorothy "Dot" Morris, who was married for 54 years to her high school sweetheart.

Those six individuals made Tucson a better place. Those six individuals' lives will not be forgotten.

Nonetheless, I am determined that the 45 seconds of violence inflicted on us two years ago will not define who we are individually or as a community.

Instead, this tragedy has shown us so much about what it means to help each other.

Strangers came to our aid until first responders moved in quickly with professional calm to treat the wounded. At the University of Arizona Medical Center, skilled doctors and nurses saved lives.

We saw our community spontaneously build memorials to those who were killed or wounded.

Members of the community now are discussing how best to permanently memorialize the lives that were lost and those that were altered forever that day.

The most powerful way to honor those killed and wounded in Tucson, in Newtown and elsewhere is to do our best to ensure it does not happen again.

Those of us in Tucson, as well as all Americans, are moving forward—not because of what has happened but in spite of it. Tucson is a special community that was deeply wounded two years ago. But as the nation witnessed in 2011, the healing started as soon as the shooting stopped.

This is a painful journey that we all are taking together. By helping each other, we'll get there. Of that, I am confident.