Guest Commentary

A survivor of the Jan. 8 shootings is energized by the growing efforts to curb gun violence

On Wednesday, Jan. 8, we will pause to remember the tragedy that struck Tucson three years ago. That day we became a small town again and in many ways Tucson drew upon its pioneer roots. We took care of each other.

I still find myself occasionally thinking back to the day before the morning of the Congress on Your Corner. I was working for Congresswoman Giffords and excited and relieved that she had won an election for her third term in office. My friend and colleague Gabe Zimmerman was planning his wedding with a lot of advice from the females in the office. Tucsonans I did not know then were going about their lives ... planning retirement trips, taking kids to school, filling their calendar with the things that make up our lives.

Congress on Your Corner was an event where you could see democracy in action. Our congresswoman would meet her constituents and hear their views in front of a neighborhood grocery store. By 9:30 on that Saturday morning, a good-sized line of people had formed in front of the Safeway at Oracle and Ina, waiting for the congresswoman to arrive. I chatted with some of them as they waited in line. I didn't know then that over the next three years I would come to think of many of these folks like family.

At 10:10 a.m. on that beautiful January day, everything came to a halt in all of those lives during 20 seconds of gunfire.

Before that moment I had always thought that gun violence happened to other people. I would read the morning newspaper and skim over the articles about a shooting ... somewhere else, somebody else, somebody else's child or husband or mother. It had little to do with me.

But on that day I was shot along with 19 other people, six of whom died.

From my vantage point, facedown on the pavement, I remember hearing, not screams of despair, but intent voices reaching out to help in a moment of crisis. Community members dived in with whatever skills or comfort they could offer. Tucsonans are made of tough stuff.

I don't remember panic as I was loaded into an ambulance along with the other wounded, but instead focused professionals. As I was rolled into the trauma bay I sensed the medical team knew exactly what to do. I remember, after a good dose of morphine, at last opening my eyes to see trauma surgeon Randall Friese looking down at me. Seeing his twinkly eyes and white hair, I thought, "I sure hope he isn't God."

After that day, gun violence was no longer an issue that pertained to "somebody else." I started paying attention and could not believe what I learned. The numbers were staggering: 33 homicides a day in the U.S.; 55 suicides with a gun every single day.

Several of the Tucson survivors and family members of those killed on Jan. 8, 2011, decided we needed to speak out about gun violence. We worked with Mayors Against Illegal Guns to take our message to Congress.

We joined with survivors and families of victims of Columbine, Virginia Tech, the Sikh temple shooting, Aurora, and dozens of others who do not have a name attached to the place where their loved one was gunned down.

I have often been asked if I am discouraged by the seeming lack of action on gun violence prevention. Four months after 20 children and six educators were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was sitting in the gallery of the U.S. Senate watching an amendment that would have closed the dangerous private sale loophole—which allows criminals to buy guns online and at gun shows with no questions asked—go down to defeat by a mere five votes.

So am I discouraged? On the contrary. I am gratified and energized by the growing movement and involvement of citizens who have joined together and are demanding change. There is not a doubt that we have a problem. In our country, more people have died from gunfire since Robert Kennedy was shot in 1968 than have died in all the wars of this country's history, from the Revolutionary War to the present day. Yes, I fact-checked. It's a terrible reality but change is finally happening.

Let's look at what has happened in only this past year. Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, started Americans for Responsible Solutions, which now has more than half a million members and has raised millions of dollars to support candidates who will seek answers to gun violence.

After the Newtown shooting, a young mother started Moms Demand Action, which now has chapters in all 50 states. One of the most powerful statements I have ever seen in the halls of Congress was a long line of empty strollers outside a congressional office. The office and lobby were packed with members of the moms group, toddlers in arms, asking for a safer America for their children.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns has connected with hundreds of survivors of gun violence and given all of us a way to amplify our voices and tell our stories. Just three weeks ago Moms Demand Action merged with Mayors Against Illegal Guns to form a powerful and growing organization.

State legislatures began taking up this issue, which had previously been considered untouchable. Currently, 16 states now require background checks on all firearms sold.

Here in Tucson, a group of concerned citizens started Tucson Community Against Gun Violence, which is working hard to tackle gun violence at the local level. Now, all guns sold on Tucson city property must go through a background check.

The NRA's attempt to recall members of legislatures in three states only found success in Colorado. And of the five legislators they targeted, only two were recalled. A weak showing for the nation's biggest bully.

At 10:10 a.m. on Jan. 8, I will stand with other survivors and ring a bell to remember my friend and colleague Gabe Zimmerman, little Christina-Taylor Green, Judge John Roll, Dot Morris, Phyllis Schneck and Dorwan Stoddard. Unspeakable losses.

I have been asked if there is one main lesson that I have taken away from my experience. If I had to choose one, I would say it would be gratitude. Be thankful for family and friends and tell them what they mean to you. Tell them you love them. Be grateful for each day. It is a very precious gift.

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