On the Firing Line

Tucsonans are in the center of the nation's new fight against gun violence

When Pam Simon retired from Gabby Giffords' District 8 congressional office in the summer of 2012, she shared a rare distinction: She was one of the few congressional aides who have ever taken a bullet in the line of duty.

Simon was among the 19 people shot on Jan. 8, 2011, when a deranged gunman opened fire on Giffords' Congress on Your Corner event. Six people were killed: Giffords' 31-year-old aide, Gabe Zimmerman; 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green; U.S. District Judge John Roll; and retirees Dorwin Stoddard, Dorothy Morris and Phyllis Schneck.

Another 13 people were wounded, including Simon, who had a bullet pass through her chest, miraculously miss any major organs, and lodge in her backside. (When President Barack Obama asked her where the bullet had ended up while visiting Tucson in the days after the shooting, Simon told him she wasn't going to let him touch the spot.)

Once she stepped down from her job in the congressional office, Simon had the freedom to join a group of fellow Tucsonans who had been speaking out against gun violence with the support of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an initiative spearheaded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and supported by Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.

Patricia Maisch, who prevented the gunman from reloading by wrestling from him an extended magazine packed with more than 30 bullets, has been calling for limits on magazines that hold dozens of bullets and for stronger background checks. Roxanna Green, who lost her 9-year-old daughter, Christina-Taylor, taped a TV ad asking that Washington politicians stand up to the gun lobby.

Over the summer, Simon taped her own TV ad as part of a campaign that called on people to "demand a plan" to curb gun violence during the presidential campaign. The effort didn't have much impact; the topic of gun rights was off the table in the presidential debates.

"Throughout the campaign, we talked about gay marriage," Simon said. "We talked about choice. We talked about everything, and the word gun was never mentioned. It was a taboo subject. And it is no longer."

Indeed it is not. The political landscape changed on Dec. 14, when a 20-year-old madman slaughtered 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn. The horror of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School has catapulted the issue of gun violence to the top of the national agenda.

Simon has met with Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss alternatives for firearms regulations and was in Washington last week when Sen. Dianne Feinstein rolled out her legislative package to renew the ban on assault weapons and extended magazines. Feinstein wants to ban the sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of more than 100 specific firearms and semi-automatic accessories that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. The proposed law would expand the definition of assault weapons and allow people to keep semi-automatic weapons they already own as long as they register them.

Andrew Arulanandam, the National Rifle Association's public affairs director, released a statement last week calling Feinstein's legislation "disappointing but not surprising. ... The American people know gun bans do not work and we are confident Congress will reject Senator Feinstein's wrong-headed approach."

Feinstein's legislation came just a week after President Obama released a list of 23 executive actions designed to reduce gun violence. The proposals included more funding for mental-health treatment; making it easier for states to report mentally ill people to the national background-check system; training law enforcement in how to deal with active-shooter situations; tracking more data about gun crime; and nominating a permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has had only acting directors since 2006 (when a change in law required Senate approval before someone could take over the agency). When he released the list of executive actions, Obama called on Congress to expand background checks and to enact a new ban on assault weapons and extended magazines.

Simon is encouraged by the new push for gun regulation in Washington.

"I am very excited that there is movement on Capitol Hill and I realize there is a long way to go," Simon said. "It's heartbreaking that it took that kind of tragedy for leaders to be able to step out and say they will make this an issue."

On the second anniversary of the Tucson rampage, Giffords and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, announced they were forming Americans for Responsible Solutions, a political-action committee dedicated to advocating for gun regulation and supporting candidates who back their agenda.

When the couple announced the formation of Americans for Responsible Solution, they noted that even after Giffords was shot through the head, her fellow members of Congress ignored the issue of gun violence.

"In response to a horrific series of shootings that has sown terror in our communities, victimized tens of thousands of Americans, and left one of its own bleeding and near death in a Tucson parking lot, Congress has done something quite extraordinary—nothing at all," Giffords and Kelly wrote in a USA Today op-ed.

Kelly told the Weekly that he wants to see Congress pass "some common-sense gun-violence legislation—stuff like a universal background check." He'd also like to see regulation of extended clips, such as the one used by the Tucson shooter, as well as restrictions on automatic weapons.

"For a very long time, the gun lobby has had a lot of influence on Capitol Hill," said Kelly, who was scheduled to testify on gun violence before the U.S. Senate this week. "They will continue to have a tremendous amount of influence, but I think what happened in Newtown was the clarion call that we just can't put out a statement every time one of these things happens. First of all, they're happening too frequently. And it's unacceptable to have 20 first-graders killed in their classrooms, along with six of their teachers and administrators, and for us as a nation to do nothing about it. That is unacceptable."

Congressman Ron Barber, the former Giffords aide who was shot twice on Jan. 8, 2011, has recently become much more vocal about the regulation of firearms. He told the Weekly he was inspired to act by the Newtown shootings, too.

"Two days after the shooting in Newtown, I was reading the paper and I saw the photograph of one of the children," Barber said. "She looked just like the youngest of my granddaughters. Looking at that photograph, I saw my grandkids looking back at me and I started sobbing. I just broke down. ... It could be anyone's children, anyone's grandchildren. How can we face our children or our grandchildren if we don't do anything about this?"

Barber was nearly killed after he took bullets to the face and to the upper thigh on Jan. 8. He lost sensation in his left leg below the knee and has to walk with a brace. But his congressional campaigns did not focus on the attack and, until the Newtown shootings, he spent more time talking about improving mental-health treatment than gun control.

Barber acknowledged that passing new restrictions on firearms will be challenging.

"The NRA has been a powerful political force and they will continue to be," Barber said. "But we've had a change in the national mood about mass shootings. What happened in Newtown has really changed the picture dramatically. I'm not underestimating how tough a battle this will be, but I think the public is behind us on this."

Tucsonan Todd Rathner, who serves on the NRA board, said that he doesn't believe restrictions on assault rifles such as the one used in the shooting rampage at an Aurora, Colo., theatre in July 2012 that left 12 dead and 58 wounded, would do much to prevent shooting rampages.

"We had a ban on so-called assault weapons for 10 years, from 1994 to 2004, and from the National Institute of Justice's own figures, it resulted in no reduction in crime," Rathner said. "Columbine happened during that time, as did other mass shootings. So the exact same ban that they are trying to reinstate had no appreciable effect on crime. Why should we punish law-abiding citizens when there's going to be no effect on crime?"

Rathner is likewise skeptical about reducing the size of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. He estimates there are hundreds of millions of high-capacity magazines already out there, so unless the government is going to confiscate all of them, criminals and mass shooters will still be able to get them through the secondhand marketplace.

"The logic here is: We're going to tell law-abiding citizens that they cannot have a magazine over 10 rounds in their firearm when we know that lunatics like Jared Loughner will not obey the law and use whatever-capacity magazines in their guns," Rathner said. "It makes absolutely no sense. Banning the future production of them is not going to affect what's already out there."

But Barber has no doubt that if the Tucson shooter had a magazine that held less than 10 rounds, fewer people would have been shot. Barber said the gunman was able to shoot 19 people in less than 20 seconds, but when he stopped to reload, fast-acting citizens were able to knock him down and wrest the gun away from him before he could put another magazine in his pistol.

"I've seen what an extended magazine can do in a very short period of time," said Barber, who is serving as vice chairman of the Congressional Taskforce to Reduce Gun Violence. "The images of Gabby being shot, of Gabe (Zimmerman) dying, of John Roll dying, each of them on either side of me, will never go away.

"That kind of mass murder has to be dealt with, and the only way we can deal with it is decreasing the size of magazines so that they can't have that kind of firepower," Barber continued. "We're never going to stop all gun violence. It would be great if we could, but we have to do something to reduce the magnitude of these mass shootings and do something to give people a chance to get away or intercept the shooter."

Barber, drawing on his experience dealing with mental illness during his career as director of the Southern Arizona office of the state's Department of Developmental Disabilities, continues to stress the importance of increasing mental-health treatment as part of curbing gun violence.

Barber was pleased to see that Obama's package of executive actions included a push for what Barber calls "mental-health first aid." Barber pitched the program, which is already under way in Southern Arizona, to Vice President Joe Biden during a meeting earlier this month.

The program, which mental-health advocates in Southern Arizona have been developing, teaches people how to identify mental illness and how to get help. More than 1,400 people have been through the training in Pima County.

"Basically, what the training does is teach people what mental illness looks like and what kind of treatment services are available and what you would do in the case of an emergency," said Barber, who has introduced the Mental Health First Aid Act, which would provide funding to expand the program to more states. "If someone has a psychotic break, you need to know how to handle that."

The question of preventing mentally ill people from acquiring firearms is a rare area where Rathner and Barber agree. Rathner said that only 12 states have agreed to incorporate mental-health records with the NICS background-check system.

"The mental-health records from most of the country have not been implemented," Rathner said. "There's no excuse for any state not to do it. We don't report it and that's absurd."

Too many people who belong on the NCIS list of prohibited possessors never get there, according to Barber. In Arizona, each county has a different system for reporting prohibited possessors to the NCIS.

"We know that the current system doesn't work very well," Barber said. "We've seen many flaws in reporting in Arizona. So, in addition to universal background checks, we really need to shore up the individual county and state reporting to the national registry."

Southern Arizona's other congressman, Democrat Raul Grijalva, praised the Obama administration for "taking on the NRA," but he expects a major fight in the House of Representatives.

"It's going to be an intense battle in Congress," Grijalva said. "The NRA is going to fight this tooth and nail, as we saw from their recent ad with the president's children."

And the NRA has plenty of supporters among congressional Republicans. U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, a Republican who represents Maricopa County, said earlier this month that Obama's executive actions amounted to "plans to attempt to weaken the Second Amendment."

"Much to Mr. Obama's chagrin, ours is not a government run by fiat," Franks added in his prepared statement. "The American people have shown quite clearly that they will not simply roll over while this administration seeks to undercut our founding principles in pursuit of its preferred European model of government."

Earlier this month, Pam Simon traveled to Newtown with Roxanna Green to talk with families who had lost loved ones in last month's shooting rampage.

She told the Weekly that when she met parents who had lost their child in the shooting, "I found I almost could not talk as they held a picture of their precious 5-year-old. I just can't even fathom what they must be going through."

She also met with members of the Newtown community who have launched the Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization that's dedicated to both raising money for the survivors and advocating for the prevention of gun violence and support for programs for the mentally ill.

"We were there just to be supportive of the families and to find out if there was any way we could continue to be of support," Simon said.

Simon has been traveling quite a bit in her new role as advocate for new gun legislation. She is starting to meet more people who have been inspired to push for new gun regulations by surviving mass shootings.

"We're starting to form a bit of a community," Simon said. "We are perfectly well aware that it's going to be a heavy lift, but we're in this for the long haul. As I always tell people: There's nothing like a bullet in the chest to get your attention on an issue."

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