Listening to Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords speak, you’re quickly overcome by the urge to cry. The former congresswoman was once known for her incisive rhetoric, delivered with a magnetic smile. Then, at age 40, she was shot one sunny January day in 2011 outside Tucson, Ariz., while chatting with constituents in front of a Safeway supermarket.
The 22-year-old gunman, angered by Giffords’s political views, had targeted her. Six died in the attack, and 10 others besides Giffords were injured.
Giffords may have survived, but her speech did not. Her words once flowed easily, but now she measures each one, rehearsing phrases to string them together in coherent sentences before speaking in public.
It is a miracle that she is able to utter a word. The bullet that struck her pierced the left side of her brain, leaving her unable to talk for two months. Through speech therapy, she regained the ability to speak, but only in short, labored bursts.
That challenge was obvious during Northwell Health’s second Gun Violence Prevention Forum, a two-hour meeting of gun safety experts, medical practitioners, policy makers and elected leaders from around the country on Dec. 10. Giffords spoke alongside U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican who supports a federal universal background check for firearm purchases, and whom Giffords, a Democrat, has endorsed for Congress.
We applaud Northwell Health — in particular Michael Dowling, its president and CEO — for taking a leading role in fostering dialogue about gun safety, while also funding gun violence research: Northwell put up $1 million last December to study America’s “pandemic of gun violence,” as Dowling calls it.
We also applaud Giffords, who, despite the physical pain and mental anguish she endures, has been an outspoken proponent of common-sense gun laws that are intended not to take away anyone’s right to bear arms, but rather to enact safeguards — like background checks — to ensure that guns do not end up in the hands of criminals or those suffering from mental illness.
No doubt, we need to understand the root causes of our nation’s crisis of gun violence, which kills an average of 110 people a day — two-thirds by suicide. With a $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Northwell is conducting a major research study at three of its hospitals, asking emergency room patients about the presence of guns in their homes to assess their risk of injury or death by a firearm.
Our nation desperately needs studies like this one. From 1996 to 2019, Congress, tied up in knots by the powerful gun lobby, refused to fund firearms research. Only recently, thanks to the monumental efforts of gun safety activists like Giffords, is Congress starting to parcel out research funds. In its 2020 budget, it earmarked $25 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to study gun violence.
Over the past two and a half decades, roughly a million people have died by gun in this country, with about 170 mass shootings. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 — in which 26 died, including 20 6- and 7-year-olds — Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who was recently elected in Arizona to the U.S. Senate, founded a nonprofit, simply called Giffords, to raise funds for gun violence research, lobby government to enact sensible gun legislation and educate the public about firearms safety.
Writing recently on Giffords.org’s blog, Kelly Drane noted that gun sales have surged during the coronavirus pandemic. We see this at any time of potential unrest in our nation — fear drives firearms sales to ever higher levels. In November, some 2 million gun sales were recorded — a 48 percent increase over the same month last year.
More guns, Drane rightly noted, do not make us safer. Quite the opposite.
We know that economic calamities such as the Great Recession of 2007 to 2010 increase the likelihood of suicide, according to the medical journal The Lancet. We also know that people who die by suicide are significantly more likely to use a gun than any other means. At the same time, according to Harvard University School of Public Health, more guns bring more homicides. Therefore, stemming our nation’s all-too-easy access to firearms should — and likely would — reduce gun violence.
The best way to effect change, Giffords noted last Thursday, is to “vote, vote, vote.”