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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Giffords struggles to make guns a mid-term issue

Former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

She has delivered the same 64-word speech eight times already, but Gabby Giffords is struggling to get through the ninth.

“Together, we can win elections,” the former Arizona congresswoman tells her Seattle audience before starting to stumble.

After a moment of confused silence, an aide whispers the next line, and Giffords continues the broken sentence: “… change our laws.”

Four years after she was shot in the head and went on to inspire millions with her recovery, Giffords is as committed as ever to pushing for tighter gun-control laws. But in the final days of this year’s midterm elections, few candidates are willing to rally to her cause. There’s little to suggest those elected next week will pursue the changes she seeks in the nation’s gun laws.

As Giffords visited nine states in the past two weeks, the National Rifle Association was working in at least 30, with advertising and get-out-the-vote manpower, to strengthen its position in Washington and state capitals. She will be widely outspent this year by the NRA and others who support the rights of gun owners.

Two days after Giffords’ appearance in Seattle, a 15-year-old high school student shot and killed two people and killed himself in an attack north of the city that seriously wounded three others. The shooting has barely made a ripple in the final days of the campaign.

“Long, hard haul,” Giffords told The Associated Press in a brief interview after her Seattle event, using one of the short phrases that now dominate her speech.

In part by design, but also in recognition of the country’s political landscape, not a single candidate in this year’s midterm elections for statewide or federal office appeared with Giffords as she made her way from Maine to Washington state over 10 days.

She drew visits from Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, both Democrats, neither running for re-election next month.

“If this happened in March or December or any other time, we’d have asked other politicians to join,” said Marti Anderson, an Iowa state lawmaker who helped organize a Giffords event in Des Moines. “But it’s risky 15 days before an election.”

Instead, Giffords took part in a series of discussions about domestic violence in smaller venues such as a Des Moines public library and a high school classroom in Portland, Oregon. With the Senate majority at stake, Giffords isn’t running television ads in states where Democratic incumbents are seeking re-election, among them North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana and New Hampshire.

The exception is Iowa, where her group announced plans this week to run television ads against Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst. “Joni Ernst won’t vote to close the loophole that lets some dangerous people still get guns,” Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald says in the ad set to run through Election Day.

Said Pia Carusone, Giffords’ longtime chief aide, “We went in knowing we had to be strategic and careful.”

The NRA has no such concerns. The powerful gun-rights lobby has spent more than $27.3 million this year on elections in at least 27 states through Oct. 15, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Giffords’ organization, by contrast, has spent just $6.6 million in seven states.

The financial advantage is just one piece of the NRA’s strength.

“Anyone who tries to gauge the National Rifle Association by money alone is making a huge mistake,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam, citing 5 million dues-paying members and many more voters who look to his organization for guidance on how to vote on Election Day.

Arulanandam said he’s grateful that Giffords is “on the mend and getting better every day,” but he criticized her political goals. “People realize that regardless of what she says, her endgame is similar to Michael Bloomberg and President Obama, which is draconian gun control,” he said.

Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, have gone to great lengths to rebut such criticism. Recently, with little sign that an effort to adopt universal background checks will pass in Congress, Giffords has focused on promoting a measure that would prevent convicted stalkers and abusive “dating partners” from accessing guns.

In a letter opposing the measure, the NRA says it “manipulates emotionally compelling issues such as ‘domestic violence’ and ‘stalking’ simply to cast as wide a net as possible for federal firearm prohibitions.”

Giffords’ team was initially hopeful, but it now concedes that the bill is not likely to come up in Congress’ lame-duck session. And while the mood was largely positive during Giffords’ tour, the frustration they’re not connecting with voters this election season was evident.

“It’s hard not to be, as a person in this country, disappointed by the lack of response,” Carusone said. “But we’re not surprised. We knew this wouldn’t be easy.”

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