The NRA’s New Low

The gun rights group just took a personal swipe at Gabby Giffords.

Gabby Giffords versus the NRA

One of these entities has more empathy than the other.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty Images.

Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman grievously wounded in a 2011 shooting near Tucson that killed six people, returned to Capitol Hill this week to renew her push for legislation that would expand background checks for gun purchases to include gun shows and Internet sales. The legislation, a similar version of which was blocked by a Senate filibuster in 2013, stands almost no chance in the Republican-led Congress. But Giffords—for whom “talking is really tough,” as she admitted in a recent interview—made the trip anyway.  “Stopping violence takes courage,” she said. “The courage to do what’s right, the courage of new ideas. … Now is the time to come together and be responsible. Democrats, Republicans, everyone. We must never stop fighting. Fight, fight, fight. Be bold, be courageous, the nation’s counting on you.”

Here is how the National Rifle Association chose to respond to Giffords on Thursday:

The NRA has of course tangled before with Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group that Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, created to push for common-sense gun law reforms, such as closing the “gun show loophole” for background checks. But as far as I can tell, this is the first time that the NRA has taken a personal swipe at Giffords, mocking her reform efforts by directly invoking the shooting that nearly killed her.

The NRA tweet, which went out to the organization’s 264,000 followers, was promoting a piece by the conservative website Breitbart, which ridiculed Giffords’ renewed push for universal background checks by noting that the Tucson shooter, Jared Loughner, had passed a background check to acquire his Glock. “Yes, Loughner acquired his firearm via a background check, as did Jerad and Amanda Miller (Las Vegas), Elliot Rodger (Santa Barbara), Ivan Lopez (Fort Hood 2014), Darion Marcus Aguilar (Maryland mall), Karl Halverson Pierson (Arapahoe High School), Paul Ciancia (LAX), Aaron Alexis (DC Navy Yard), James Holmes (Aurora theater), Nidal Hasan (Fort Hood 2009), among others,” the article states. “But Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, stood with Democrat lawmakers to argue that expanding background checks to include gun show sales is a way of ‘stopping violence.’ ”

There are a few points worth noting. For one, Giffords and Kelly were not just standing with “Democrat lawmakers”—they were joined by Rep. Bob Dold, an Illinois Republican who co-authored the background check legislation, and the bill has three other Republican co-authors in the House. (Giffords’ group in general prides itself on having support from many Republicans and gun owners—Giffords and Kelly make much of fact that they themselves are gun owners.) For another thing, one of the above-mentioned shooters, Jerad Miller, complained bitterly prior to his attack about the difficulty he was having buying a weapon because, as someone with an extensive criminal record, he could not pass a background check—a sign that the requirement is not as ineffectual as its critics make it out to be.

But the big problem with the mocking argument put forth by Breitbart and the NRA (which did not return a call seeking comment) is that it misses the entire point of Giffords’ advocacy. She is not devoting herself to the cause of expanding background checks because that measure would have stopped Loughner, but because that measure is the one that police and criminal justice experts believe would have the biggest impact on reducing gun violence overall. The same was true of the families of the victims in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre: Universal background checks would not have stopped Adam Lanza, who got his guns from his mother, but the families wanted to push for whatever reform would limit shooting deaths, period. Making it harder for people with criminal records, histories of domestic violence, and adjudications for mental illness to obtain guns is one of the best measures at our disposal to do so.

In other words, Giffords and others whose lives have been upended by gun violence are thinking about others, not themselves—they are exhibiting a form of political empathy. It’s a concept that is apparently foreign to the NRA—which would help explain why the organization thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to casually taunt a victim of gun violence who is still trying mightily to recover from her near-death experience.