On January 8, 2011, Gabby Giffords was shot in the head while participating in a Congress at Your Corner meet-and-greet with her constituents. Several of them died. Giffords was lucky in that she survived, though where the bullet hit meant that she’d have to deal with paralysis on the right side of her body, partial blindness in one eye, and difficulties in producing speech (due to aphasia).
Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down is about that day, and the aftermath, and who Giffords was leading up to becoming a Congressional Representative from Tucson, Arizona. This film is not a biopic, though there are biographical details in it, nor is it a story of overcoming odds, though Giffords certainly did that. What it focuses on is the tenacity of Giffords in turning this tragedy into fuel for creating an organization (named Giffords) that seeks to pass laws at the state and local level to reduce gun violence. And she is tenacious.
The editing is key here, as it jumps back and forth in time and in subject (Giffords, her husband Mark Kelly, rehab, school shootings, legislation, the NRA). It never flags, nor does it ever feel like it’s jumping around in time just to keep our interest. Several talking heads appear during the course of the documentary, including hospital staff, Rep. James Clyburn, President Obama, members of Giffords’s Congressional staff, and her family.
When Giffords is in rehab, the days since the shooting are listed on the screen to show us how long rehabilitation took, and how much progress was made. Because music is shared between brain hemispheres, she’s able to sing songs better than she’s able to speak words.
The movie covers Sandy Hook, Kelly’s last mission in space (occurring at the same time Giffords was getting part of her skull replaced in surgery), Giffords appearing in Congress for the first time since the shooting to vote to raise the debt ceiling, her retiring her seat, a brief focus on the trial of the shooter, and finally Kelly winning the special election as Senator for John McCain’s empty seat (the moment when Giffords is critiquing him practicing his first speech to Congress is a light-hearted highlight).
What’s heartening is how many laws have passed at the state level to decrease gun violence, and even one last year that got support for some Republicans, including Senator John Coryn of Texas (mainly because Giffords got gun owners to tell him they supported this legislation). And while the NRA is still a force, their stock has tumbled recently. Unfortunately, the night before I saw this film, another shooting occurred at the University of Virginia, showing that we still have much, MUCH more work to do.
After the film was over, Giffords was joined by Peter Ambler (Giffords Executive Director,who also did a quick intro before the film), Ryan Busse (author of Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America), Lisa Erspamer (Film Producer), and Sheila E. Isong (Engagement Director at Giffords, Washington D.C. – Baltimore area) for a Q&A. This theater wasn’t equipped with a spotlight, which an old white lady in a wheelchair thought was worth yelling about to theater staff after the Q&A, as if was their fault. I also didn’t bring my good camera with me, so apologies for the crappy quality of my photos.
The Q&A began and ended with prepared comments that Giffords spoke to the audience, but since she stills struggles with forming words spontaneously, most of the questions were answered by the other people onstage, with Ambler directing the conversation.
After Giffords’s intro, Ambler asked Erspamer how she met Giffords. Erspamer said she met the Congresswoman shortly after Sandy Hook and thought someone should make a movie about her.
Ambler then talked a little bit about the organization, Giffords, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in January (which means that this year will be 10 years since Sandy Hook). They have about 80 staff across the country. They also created an organization called Gun Owners for Safety to combat the power and reach of the NRA.
Introductions continued. Busse used to work for the gun industry and tried to change it from the inside. Isong talked about how there are gun ownership groups all over the country, and how they work with this “rainbow coalition” of gun owners, activists, medical professionals, and others because, as she noted, “Gun violence does not discriminate.”
Ambler mentioned that Giffords (the organization) has helped to pass over 500 bills to reduce gun violence. He then introduced Julia Weber, their Implementation Director, who stood up from her seat. She then thanked the people who help to implement these laws.
Before we went to questions from the audience, Giffords was asked what she thought of her husband, who had just won re-election to the Senate. “He is my best friend. He is sooo funny. I love him a lot. (kiss)”
The first question was “What can we do to get the message out?” Ambler said we can sign up on giffords.org and get alerts when related events are happening in King County. He also pointed out that the NRA still has a budget of $200-$300 million, which puts them at a disadvantage, so donations also help.
The second question was if the Giffords organization works with Everytown. Isong mentioned that they do partner up when they have the opportunity.
Someone then asked about the significane of the silver rose, which I missed while watching the movie, but Ambler said Giffords is writing a story about it on her website, so the question remained unanswered (though she was picked to be grand marshal of the Rose Parade, so maybe that has something to do with it).
The final question was whether there was any momentum at the federal level for repealing PLCAA for the NRA. Ambler said it’s not going to happen in the next two years, but they are fighting to overturn it. Currently, there’s no liability from the gun industry over gun violence. He did say, however, that there are unique ways to undermine it at the state level.
As I mentioned, the Q&A started and ended with words from Giffords. In her closing speech, she said that “small things add up,” and “When people care for each other and work together, everything is possible.”
Postscript: I met Giffords after the screening, just outside the lobby. And while I don’t think I was “Gabbyfied” (a term used in the film to describe her effect on people), I can tell you that she certainly cares for others — something that is evident in the film, but even more evident in person. And I, for one, hopes she never backs down.
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