WASHINGTON – Mark Kelly woke up in the middle of the night in his hotel room in China and looked at his BlackBerry: Twenty children in Newtown, Conn., all shot to death. He immediately called his wife thousands of miles away, Gabrielle Giffords.
“I said to her, ‘Gabby, we can’t just put out a statement anymore,’ ” Kelly recounted in an interview Tuesday. “Twenty first-graders and their teachers, murdered in a classroom. If we just talk about it, things won’t change. We need to try and help.”
With that, a couple who survived their own episode of gun violence decided to make themselves the new faces of the push to toughen the country’s gun laws. The astronaut and his wife – who as a Democratic congresswoman representing Arizona was shot in the head in 2011 outside a Tucson, Ariz., supermarket – announced Tuesday, the second anniversary of the shooting, that they were forming their own political group to take on the powerful National Rifle Association.
Kelly said he and Giffords, both gun owners and Westerners supportive of the Second Amendment, would push for ambitious legislative changes in American’s gun laws: an assault weapons ban, universal background checks to close the “gun show loophole,” and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines such as the one used to kill six people and wound Giffords and 13 others in Tucson.
“These are common-sense solutions,” Kelly said. “If you can just prevent one of these incidents from happening, isn’t it worth it?”
Their efforts come as the Obama administration is preparing what could be a far-reaching agenda on gun control. Many Democratic lawmakers have also introduced legislation in the new Congress, including measures to ban the sale and manufacture of assault weapons, an issue that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is expected to address today in his State of the State address.
The national proposals will run into tough political opposition on Capitol Hill, where the NRA remains one of the most powerful lobbying organizations and uses its well-financed political muscle to pressure lawmakers and erect barriers to tougher gun laws. But Kelly said the couple have a unique message and one that is supported by many gun owners.
Giffords, 42, supported gun rights in Congress, and Kelly, 48, is a combat veteran of the Persian Gulf War and a recreational hunter.
“I’ve taken a gun to work,” Kelly said. “I flew in combat in Operation Desert Storm off the USS Midway, carrying a 9-millimeter. I certainly understand the importance and the right to own a firearm in our country. I certainly get that. Gabby and I want to protect people’s Second Amendment rights. But I personally believe, and so does Gabby, that assault weapons used to kill a lot of people all at once should only be used by the military.”
The couple’s new group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, will be based in Washington and will raise money and work toward specific solutions to gun violence. Kelly will travel back and forth from Tucson, where Giffords is still undergoing speech therapy for her brain injury.
Giffords and Kelly met last week with New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a political independent who is a leading gun-control advocate. Bloomberg is spending millions of dollars of his vast personal fortune on advocacy efforts, including a nonprofit group he co-founded with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino called Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Giffords and Kelly also wrote an op-ed article Tuesday in USA Today announcing their goals. They plan to work with Bloomberg’s group, and Kelly said he has also discussed potential gun regulations with White House officials.
Kelly said he will personally reach out to NRA officials, who are scheduled to meet Thursday with Vice President Biden.
“I have talked to NRA members, from both sides of the aisle, and every one of them … [is] in 100 percent agreement with some measure of common-sense reform,” Kelly said.
Kelly said that the couple chose to launch their initiative on the second anniversary of the attempted assassination of Giffords in the mass shooting in Tucson because, as with much of the country, the massacre last month at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., was a tipping point for them. Last week, they traveled to Newtown and met with families of some of the victims.
“Enough,” Giffords said in an interview with ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, saying that the Newtown shooting spurred the couple to action.
In Newtown, Kelly said he and Giffords met with about 40 parents in the home of a fourth-grade boy who could have been shot when the gunman burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 first-graders and six educators Dec. 14.
“It was very hard,” Kelly said. “Incredibly difficult. As soon as I walked into the living room and met with the first parents, one showed me a picture on an iPhone of a curly-haired redhead with a big smile who is not here anymore.”
One of the mothers gave the couple a photograph of her daughter, which they have since hung in a prominent spot in their Tucson home. An hour and half into the visit, after Giffords hugged the parents and told them they would not be forgotten, she sat down on an ottoman. She put her head into her hands, he said, and cried.
“She told them,” Kelly said, “that we were going to try and stop this from happening again.”