An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that her “Rights and Responsibilities” tour was funded by the Americans for Responsible Solutions super PAC. Organizers said the tour was funded by the organization’s 501(c)(4) arm, not the super PAC. This version has been corrected.
CHUGIAK, Alaska — It was Day Two of Gabrielle Giffords’s whirlwind nationwide tour to revive the push for tougher gun laws. The former congresswoman’s husband, Mark Kelly, woke up early, placed his black case of firearms into the car trunk and raced across a vast stretch of Alaskan highway to practice target shooting.
If the gun debate were a war, then Kelly was breaching enemy territory. Reporters were asked not to disclose the name of the shooting range because its owners did not want it linked with Giffords’s “Rights and Responsibilities” tour. The awning that shielded Kelly as he loaded his weapons sported a sign thanking one of the range’s key sponsors: Friends of the National Rifle Association.
Kelly, a former astronaut and fighter pilot, fired away — first with a shotgun and later with a Winchester Model 70, an iconic hunting rifle that’s powerful enough to kill caribou.
Giffords took her turn at a shooting range outside Las Vegas the day before, extending her left arm and firing a pistol for the first time since before January 2011, when she was gunned down and nearly killed at a constituent meet-and-greet in Tucson.
The visits were part of a carefully orchestrated trip this week to display the couple’s affinity for firearms in states with strong gun traditions. Their hope is to convince fellow gun owners of the virtues of stricter regulations. With Second Amendment rights, they say, come responsibilities.
At each stop — from the nation’s largest public shooting range in Las Vegas to a 1950s-themed diner in Mandan, N.D. — another message also was clear: We’re not Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York, who preaches gun control and bankrolls television ads assailing lawmakers who cross him.
Instead, Giffords and Kelly employ a softer touch. Armed with fresh polling data showing overwhelming support for expanding background checks in even the reddest pockets of the nation, the couple tells nervous politicians that they can vote “yes” and still keep their jobs.
On Tuesday here in Alaska, Kelly trained his attention on Mark Begich, one of four Democratic senators who voted against a background-checks bill in the spring. Kelly’s guest at the shooting range that morning was Tom Begich, the senator’s brother and informal adviser.
The event underscored the difficulty of changing the senator’s mind. When a reporter asked questions, Tom Begich said not to read anything political into his appearance. He said that he would have been foolish to turn down a chance to go shooting with a former astronaut, that he and Kelly mostly talked about hunting bears, and that he did not officially work for his brother or represent his views. “We just have Thanksgiving and Christmas together,” he said.
He added: “You’re asking my opinion about background checks? I probably shouldn’t share that with you.”
‘Courage to do what’s right’
Throughout her tour, Giffords has been pleading with anyone who will listen to do what she believes is the morally courageous thing. At the range in Nevada, where she and Kelly traveled to pressure another naysayer, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Giffords spoke in her halting and emotional style.
“Stopping gun violence takes courage — the courage to do what’s right, the courage of new ideas,” she said. “I’ve seen great courage when my life was on the line. Now is the time to come together. Be responsible. Democrats and Republicans, everyone — everyone — we must do something. Fight, fight, fight. Be bold, be courageous. The nation is counting on you.”
Giffords repeated her statement elsewhere, leaving many listeners in tears. She is fully alert and understands the conversations around her. But once one of the most articulate members of Congress, she struggles to convey her thoughts now. She communicates through her eyes, and her smile, although her sentences are coming a little easier these days as a result of intensive speech therapy. She struggles to walk, too, dragging her right leg, which is partly paralyzed. But Kelly, who sometimes clocks her steps with a stopwatch, says her pace is quickening.
The Arizona Democrat, whose miraculous recovery from a point-blank gunshot wound to her head inspired the nation, is the emotional counterweight to the NRA, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.