By Bob Christie and Brian Skoloff Associated Press
TUCSON, Ariz. — Tuesday was not just a day for Tucson to remember the victims of the deadly shooting that severely injured then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. It was also a day when residents could see firsthand the nation’s gun debate play out in a busy parking lot outside a city police station.
On one side was a councilman who supports gun control leading an effort to give $50 grocery store gift cards to anyone who turned in their firearms to police. On the other was an event organized by a state senator that turned into an open, unregulated and legal marketplace for firearms.
“We have a fundamental hole in the private sales of guns. You can walk up right in front of a cop and buy a gun, no background check, nothing,” said Councilman Steve Kozachik. “How much more flawed can the system be?”
The people who bought guns from each other declined repeated requests for comments. The senator and gun rights advocate didn’t stay at the event, but earlier said he was angered by the timing of Kozachik’s event and that paying $50 for a gun was such little money that it amounted to theft.
The dueling gun buyback programs — and the annual ringing of bells to remember the six dead and 13 injured, including Giffords, during the January 2011 attack — came as the congresswoman and her husband announced that they were forming a political action committee aimed at preventing gun violence.
Giffords and husband Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, discussed the effort in an op-ed published in USA Today and in an interview on ABC News. The interview also provided a glimpse of Giffords’ long recovery since being shot in the head two years ago.
She does speech and physical therapy and yoga. She has a service dog named Nelson who helps her keep balance and guides her. She recently gained more movement in her right foot and can walk faster. She still struggles with her vision, especially on her periphery. She said family is what makes her the happiest.
Giffords struggled to speak in complete sentences, but provided several one-word answers to anchor Diane Sawyer in describing her recovery and response to the shootings in Tucson and Connecticut. She used the word “enough” to react to the thought of children getting killed in a classroom. She said “daggers” to recount her tense, face-to-face encounter with shooter Jared Lee Loughner at his sentencing in November. She said “sad” to describe his mental illness. She is frustrated that her recovery has not progressed more quickly.
Kelly and Giffords wrote in the op-ed that their Americans for Responsible Solutions initiative would help raise money to support greater gun control efforts and take on the powerful gun lobby.
“Achieving reforms to reduce gun violence and prevent mass shootings will mean matching gun lobbyists in their reach and resources,” the couple wrote. They said that it will “raise funds necessary to balance the influence of the gun lobby.”
There was already some concern among gun control advocates that they were losing the momentum they hoped to have after the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead in December. Congress was already occupied with budget concerns.
Giffords’ announcement brought back memories from the 1980s, when Jim and Sarah Brady formed the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Brady, then-President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, was wounded in the 1981 presidential assassination attempt by a mentally ill gunman.
Brady’s organization has been among the most vocal champions of gun control since then, but it remains to be seen whether Giffords’ group can better compete against the National Rifle Association and its huge fundraising and political clout.
The NRA spent at least $24 million in the 2012 election cycle, including $16.8 million through its political action committee and $7.5 million through its affiliated Institute for Legislative Action. By comparison, the Brady Campaign spent around $5,800.
And when it comes to direct lobbying of lawmakers, the NRA was also dominant. Through July 1, the NRA spent $4.4 million to lobby Congress, compared with the Brady Campaign’s $60,000.
“This country is known for using its determination and ingenuity to solve problems, big and small. Wise policy has conquered disease, protected us from dangerous products and substances, and made transportation safer,” Giffords and Kelly wrote. “But when it comes to protecting our communities from gun violence, we’re not even trying — and for the worst of reasons.”
As a House member, Giffords was a centrist Democrat who represented much of liberal-leaning Tucson but also more conservative, rural areas. She supported gun rights and owned a Glock pistol. The couple said they still own two guns that are locked in a safe at their house.
Newtown Selectman Jim Gaston, who was among the officials who met with Giffords and her husband last Friday when they visited, said he and many others in town are behind her efforts. “I think she’ll find support from the vast majority of my fellow Newtowners,” Gaston said.
Gaston said he has a couple rifles himself and has always enjoyed shooting, but there is no reason for civilians to have semiautomatic weapons.
An attorney who lives in the Sandy Hook section of Newtown, Monte Frank, is organizing a bicycle ride from Sandy Hook to Washington, perhaps in March, to call for stronger gun control laws. He said he is eager to help Giffords in any way he can.
“It’s been two years now that she was shot and people were killed. I would have thought that Congress would have done something when one of their own was the victim of unnecessary gun violence,” Frank said.
In Tucson, residents rang bells at 10:11 a.m. — the moment a mentally ill man using a handgun with an extended magazine opened fire on Giffords as she met with constituents outside a Safeway supermarket. Mayor Jonathan Rothschild rang a bell at a fire station 19 times — one for each victim.
At the gun events, Kozachik, the councilman, said that as the Tucson shooting fades from the public’s mind, issues like controlling the sale of large-capacity magazines and keeping guns from the mentally ill need attention.
“This gave us the opportunity to keep the conversation going on a very sensitive day in this community,” he said.
About 200 firearms, many of them old, some inoperable, were turned in during the event, police said. They were set to be destroyed later in the day. Kozachik said he handed out about $10,000 worth of Safeway grocery gift cards.
In response to the event, Republican state Sen. Frank Antenori, who did not win re-election in November, organized a gathering outside the same police station where about a dozen people
offered cash for guns. He claimed the offer of just the gift card for a gun was like “stealing it.”
“Can you name me one firearm in working condition that’s worth $50 or less?” Antenori said.
Antenori and Kozachik accused each other of acting out of political motivations. Antenori said the councilman was sullying both the Tucson and Connecticut school shooting victims by the timing of the buyback. Kozachik said the legislator was just trying to keep his name in the news and remain relevant.
The senator didn’t stick around, while Kozachik stayed until the event ended at noon. Kozachik said the cash-for-guns scheme only served to bolster his argument that firearms laws need to be enhanced.
At his event, police documented each gun, took down names of those dropping them off and checked to be sure they were legal before loading them into a truck for destruction. A few hundred feet away, men holding signs reading “Cash for Guns” bought rifles and handguns. No paperwork, no questions asked.
Tom Ditsch, who stood watching both events, said neither accomplished anything. “Every gun that came in was an old gun, no assault weapons,” he said with disgust. “They didn’t even take any weapons off the streets that they wanted to.”
Associated Press writer Michael Melia in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.