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Gabby Giffords and Senator Mark Kelly on Gun Violence and Turning Their Survival Story Into a Movie

SXSW: The gunshot survivor and her astronaut-turned-politician husband discuss the way a new documentary captures their dramatic life story.

"Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down"

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down”

CNN Films

Eleven years ago, Gabby Giffords was a popular U.S. Congressman visiting constituents in Arizona when she was shot in the head. Six people died and 19 were injured at the hands of a mentally ill gunman in a parking lot outside Safeway, while Giffords sustained severe brain injuries that left her with aphasia, a condition that makes it difficult for her to put the thoughts in her head into words. 

That harrowing backstory strikes a jarring contrast to the chipper woman who arrived for a Zoom interview last week to discuss “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” the new documentary that tells the story of how she and her husband, astronaut-turned-senator Mark Kelly, rebuilt their lives. 

Asked how she spends her time these days, Giffords grinned. 

“I’m sobusy,” she said, speaking in the short burst of word clusters that define her speech today. “Lotta Zoom calls. Work, work, work. Yoga twice a week. French horn. Spanish lessons. Ride my bike. Oh, um…treadmill, and PBS, and…all over again!”

Giffords’ resilience is the centerpiece of the documentary, directed by Oscar-nominated “RBG” filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West, which premieres at SXSW this week. (CNN Films produced the project, which is seeking a theatrical partner.) The directors, who joined the Zoom interview, said they found themselves in possession of extensive footage tracking Giffords’ recovery going back to her early days in the hospital, much of which was filmed by Kelly.

At the time, he was an active duty astronaut for NASA on the verge of what would become his final mission to the International Space Station, and turned to his videography training to capture Giffords’ recovery. “We were kind of blown away by the amount of footage,” West said. “We were so grateful that they shared with us some of those tough moments. The challenge for us was to balance those tough moments with explaining aphasia.” 

While Giffords and Kelly garnered national media attention for their story, the documentary provides the first closeup look at her early recovery. At first, Giffords found herself trapped in constant verbal loops, repeating the word “chicken” over and over again, rather than formulating her ideas. Eventually, she embarked on intense speech therapy and learned to string words together in song. Looking back on that experience as the movie frames it, Giffords shook her head in frustration. “What, what, what,” she said, then gave a thumbs down, and added: “Aphasia.” 

The movie is both a paean to her relationship with Kelly and his dramatic ability to inherit her political fortunes to become the Democratic senator he is today. It also operates as an extension of her gun control advocacy that now consumes her professional life through her organization, Giffords. Asked to define her agenda, former congresswoman unleashed another stream of words. “Save lives,” she said. “Save lives, save the lives. Shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting. Oh, the worst. The worst.” 

Giffords has worked out an effective system for translation. She was also joined via Zoom by Peter Ambler, the director of her foundation and a former congressional staffer, who helped elaborate on her point (as he does in the movie). “Gabby obviously mentioned the gun violence piece,” he said, “but in a world and society buffeted by so many crises, her story is one of perseverance, and that’s an incredibly important part of her message.” 

Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords listens as her husband retired astronaut and combat veteran Captain Mark Kelly speaks during a news conference at the Millyard Museum, Friday, July 5, 2013 in Manchester, N.H. Three years after being shot in the head, Giffords is calling on New Hampshire's political leaders to have courage in the fight to expand background checks on gun purchases. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords listens as her husband, retired astronaut and combat veteran Captain Mark Kelly, speaks during a news conference at the Millyard Museum in 2013

AP

The filmmakers said that they were drawn into the project by producer Lisa Erspamer, and when the group met on Zoom for the first time, Giffords overcame initial communication barriers by showing off her RBG socks — signaling both an appreciation for their earlier film and its subject. They were captivated by her upbeat attitude. “With Gabby, the thing that I think you’re impacted by is just this relentless optimism,” Cohen said. “No matter what’s going on, whether it’s the challenge of putting together a piece of a speech and practicing it 150 times to get the line right, or having to fight to get a piece of legislation passed that the Senate doesn’t want to pass — it’s like optimism as an extreme sport.”

That much comes through as the movie documents the devastating impact of the shooting on the couples’ plans, which included a desire to have a baby as the Giffords’ political fortunes rise. The filmmakers also capture Giffords’ impact on Kelly’s own evolving political career and Giffords’ guiding presence, even finding her coaching him to speak slower while rehearing one of his 2020 campaign speeches. “Amazing, amazing, amazing,” Giffords said of her husband. “I’m so proud of him. I’m so proud of him. Perfect. Really good.” 

She then pointed to herself. “Servant. Servant,” she said. “Mark servant. Gabby servant.” Cohen jumped in. “A public servant. That’s pretty clearly how Gabby sees herself,” she said. “And she has certainly helped Mark become that as well.”

In an email after the interview, Giffords clarified her thoughts. “It’s exciting to watch him represent the people of Arizona,” she wrote. “He works so hard, which is no surprise to anyone who knows him. I’ve always been the more talkative one, and like to joke that my job mucking horse stalls as a young girl was great preparation for working in politics. Mark, on the other hand, is used to commanding space shuttles — a job that requires focus and leadership. What I have enjoyed most is seeing Arizonans connect with Mark and appreciate the same things that I’ve loved about him for so long: his love for our country, his passion for serving others, and his ability to bring people together to tackle complex problems.” 

Now that their life story has been given the documentary treatment, she added, “I hope this film helps further our mission of saving lives.” 

In a separate email, Kelly said that the movie brought him back to the immediacy of a traumatic experience before he realized how it would establish a new chapter for both of their political careers. “This is something we went through together, as a family, just like any other family that gets knocked down by something unexpected,” he wrote. “There were some really challenging moments, especially with Gabby’s recovery and rehabilitation. Folks are going to see just how much Gabby puts into her recovery, and how hard she continues to work at it. She’s the toughest person I know.”

Kelly added that even as a political notice, he wasn’t entirely unprepared for his sudden career change. “My previous jobs in the Navy and at NASA were about teamwork and working together towards a common goal,” he wrote. “That meant working with people not just from different backgrounds, but sometimes from different countries, to accomplish a mission. I’m also someone who is used to making decisions based on scene, data, and facts — not politics.”

Still, he credits Giffords with setting the standards for political work ethic that helped him find his footing. “It was Gabby who showed me a different side of public service,” he wrote. “She taught me how you can use policy to improve people’s lives. Those experiences have prepared me to work with my colleagues and Arizonans across the state to tackle some really tough challenges facing our country.”

Former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz. walks with her husband Mark Kelly, left, after speaking on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 4, 2015, about bipartisan legislation on gun safety. Giffords returned to Capitol Hill to join forces with advocates of expanded criminal background checks on all commercial firearms sales. The measure is considered a longshot because of opposition by the National Rifle Association. Giffords was shot in the head during a 2011 rampage in Arizona that left six people dead and a dozen others wounded. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz. walks with her husband Mark Kelly, left, after speaking on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 4, 2015, about bipartisan legislation on gun safety

AP

These celebratory insights come as Kelly faces a challenging reelection campaign this fall. While “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” largely sidesteps the trappings of a feature-length campaign video, it underscores a key aspect of the couple’s collective stance on gun safety. Giffords, who was a registered Republican early in her career before switching tickets, focuses on legislation for gun safety that appeals to gun owners.

This was another point she addressed more clearly in a follow-up email. “We can’t let corrupt gun lobby groups like the NRA and NSSF speak for gun owners, most of whom support commonsense solutions like universal background checks,” she wrote. “These groups are very effective at stoking fear to sell guns, and activating their base to oppose even the most basic, fundamental gun safety measures. We must be stronger than they are, and we must make sure all gun owners understand that the Second Amendment and gun safety laws go hand in glove.”

The movie casts Giffords as a constant foil to NRA head Wayne LaPierre. In one scene, she testifies before Congress about the need for tighter background checks while he watches with an air of resentment from the back of the room. In that case, the Senate uniformly rejected her plea, and she later appeared alongside then-President Barack Obama as he lambasted the decision. “The worst,” she said on Zoom of LaPierre. “Shooting! Wild, Wild West.” 

Ambler jumped in again. “Gabby likes to talk about how when she launched her organization, she wasn’t just a survivor of gun violence, she’s a gun owner herself,” he said. “She’s from the Wild, Wild West —“

Giffords jumped in, sensing a word and grabbing it: “Tombstone!”

Ambler again: “Representing Tombstone, Arizona in Congress, the town too tough to die,” he said. “And she was sort of intent on changing the conversation this country is having about guns from one about gun control to one about preventing gun violence and focusing not on culture and identity but health and safety.” While sweeping gun legislation remained out of reach, Giffords was fixated on a flurry of bills on the local level that could build up to wider change. These include the closing of the so-called “gun show loophole,” which allows the private sale of firearms without background checks. So far, 22 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws requiring background checks even as the loophole remains in place on the federal level. 

“The gun show,” Giffords said. “Loophole, loophole, loophole.” Ambler clarified. “Gabby is pointing out that we are making progress,” he said. “Congress hasn’t passed sweeping gun violence legislation, but Gabby has been instrumental in passing hundreds of pieces of legislation on the state level.” He said that the personal story of her recovery in the movie was tied to that progress.

“One thing that I take away from this is this metaphor between Gabby’s recovery and the fight for safer gun laws,” he said. “She didn’t get to where she is now compared to where she was 10 years ago because of a particularly good day at the gym or a successful therapy session. It was all of it adding up. That’s ultimately what a successful social movement and policy change looks like, too.”

FILE - In this May 13, 2015, file photo, former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband, Captain Mark Kelly speak in support of Oregon gun legislation at the Center for Hope and Safety in Salem, Ore. On Thursday, May 21, 2015, the Oregon Senate will take up legislation prohibiting people from keeping their firearms if they've been convicted of domestic violence or are under a restraining order. Bill sponsor Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson has said Oregon doesn't currently have a law preventing domestic violence offenders from possessing a gun. (Anna Reed/Statesman-Journal via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

Former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and Senator Mark Kelly address gun legislation in Oregon

AP

The documentary makes a point of Giffords’ bipartisan focus, with Obama speaking to the filmmakers about her ability to communicate across the aisle in the midst of an increasingly polarized landscape that anticipated the election of Donald Trump. “So important! Republican, Democrat, get along,” she said. She shook her head. “Crazy, crazy.” Giffords was met with uniform applause when she made one final appearance as a congresswoman one year after being shot to cast a vote on a measure she co-authored to outlaw low-flying aircraft used to smuggle drugs across the Mexican border. She then tenured her resignation. 

The filmmakers initially planned to follow Giffords on the road as she toured around to support her cause, but the pandemic forced them to work with preexisting footage. Now, however, she’s preparing for a broader tour even as her husband’s senatorial campaign revs its engines. While her team was reticent to delve into the specifics of Kelly’s odds (“this is not really a political conversation,” Amber said), Giffords was clearly eager to get on the road, ticking off a list of cities on her agenda. “L.A., San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, cross, cross, cross,” she said. Ambler nodded. “Gabby is detailing all the locations she’s bringing her gun violence memorial to,” he said, noting that 45,000 people died from gun violence in the U.S. last year. “It’s an ongoing campaign to bring awareness to the problem of gun violence in this country.”

Giffords also read carefully from a written statement she prepared for the Zoom that she had practiced in advance. “I’ve known the darkest of days, days of pain and uncertain recovery,” she said. “I’ve responded with grit and determination. I’ve put one foot in front of the other. I found one word and then I found another. My own recovery is a daily fight but the fight makes me stronger. I struggle to speak but I’ve not lost my voice. America needs us to speak out even when you have to fight to find the words.” Addressing gun violence in particular, she said, “We can let the shooting continue or we can act.”

As the conversation turned back to her physical recovery, Giffords suddenly said, “The hospital, hospital. Orange mountains.” Ambler asked her to clarify. “You’re talking about being on the roof?” he asked, and she nodded. “A few days after she was shot, Mark took Gabby up to the roof of the hospital to get some fresh air and look at the mountains,” Ambler said. “That was the first photo we released after she was shot, looking out over the mountains.” Giffords smiled. “Taking the long view,” she said.

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