Ten years ago I went to meet with my constituents in front of a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. I was a young congresswoman, just sworn in for a third term; it had been a long and hard campaign in a charged national environment. Soon after I arrived that morning, a gunman opened fire. He shot me in the head at close range. Eighteen other people were shot that morning. Six died.
What’s it like to survive in a world forever changed? How do you grieve what is lost, but move on with determination? How do you reckon with your country in a new way?
These are timely questions for Americans these days. We have endured a lot over the last year, and our hard times aren’t over. Just last week an angry mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, encouraged by the president. I worried as I waited to hear if my husband, Senator Mark Kelly, and his staff were safe as they sheltered in place.
The fear I felt as I waited was a terrifying echo of the fear he endured exactly a decade ago this week. It echoed the dread that millions of parents have experienced when they have received reports of school lockdowns and neighborhood shootings. This time that fear was shared by the families of so many elected officials and their teams and Capitol staff as the world watched while the walls of Congress were breached.
On the 10th anniversary of that shooting that nearly killed me, during a week in which our country reflects in shock, I want to share what I have learned about resilience and determination. It starts not with me, but with Abraham Lincoln.
All my life, I’ve studied President Lincoln. In the summer of 1862, just a few months after a cold and desperate wartime winter when his young son Willie died, and a few weeks before he gave the original Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln wrote to a faltering young cadet, Quintin Campbell. “Adhere to your purpose and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary, if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life. Take the advice of a friend, who, though he never saw you, deeply sympathizes with you, and stick to your purpose.”
The president had just experienced a profound loss, the uncertainty of war surrounded him. And yet his vision and purpose were clear: a nation united, more free and more just, achieved through the resolution and determination of his fellow Americans. That steadfastness gave him strength.
I never dreamed I would have anything in common with Lincoln. But we were both the targets of an assassin’s bullet. Only I lived, by grace, luck, the dedication of doctors and nurses and the support of my friends and family.
That January morning, I had been looking forward to spending time with the people I represented, talking about hopes and needs. It was the part of the job I loved the most. Since then, I have fought every day to regain all that I lost, from walking to speaking to being able to serve my country. I have had to re-examine my own hopes and expectations. It is exhausting. But I stick to my purpose: I still want to make the world a better place. All of the sense of possibility I felt when I arrived in that parking lot 10 years ago has stayed with me.
I carry with me every day that while I lived, wonderful Americans died: Judge John Roll — a Republican who never let our political differences prevent us from respectful conversation and admiration. A third-grader named Christina-Taylor Green, just 9 years old, who was there that day to meet me because she was interested in running for office someday. My staffer and friend, Gabe Zimmerman. This anniversary is not only mine, but belongs to their families, and all those who survived, as well.
The last year has been so hard for all of us. The pandemic has ravaged our families and communities. I lost my friend Manny Alvarado to COVID-19. Jobs have been lost. Kids are trying to learn on screens. It’s heartbreaking. People are scared, and they’re angry. All around us is rancor, rage and hate, culminating in the scenes this week of Americans attempting to undermine their own democracy. It’s going to take a long time before we feel strong again.
And yet I remain not only determined, but optimistic. I draw upon my experiences these last 10 years. Working with local leaders and activists, the gun safety movement has grown from tentative and scattered to passionate, diverse and effective. We’ve taken on the NRA and the corporate gun manufacturers and passed hundreds of laws at the local level. We passed universal background checks through the House on a 50-vote, bipartisan basis in 2019. We elected a president and statewide leaders dedicated and determined to reduce gun violence.
Setbacks are only that: temporary delays. I have worked every day to move my right arm and leg. I have trained every day to get my speech back. This summer I gave my longest speech ever — in support of President-elect Joe Biden and his vision for a safer, stronger America.
There’s no magic recovery in store for us as a nation. We have a long way to go. We are living with the consequences of years of inflammatory speech and false accusations. Through hard work, intention and commitment our country will overcome the rage of those who stormed the Capitol with Confederate flags and symbols of hate. We draw strength from the bravery and determination of our first responders and frontline workers. They inspire me. We will move ahead together as I did and still do every day — one foot after another. When one person flags, another person steps in — to lift up the weak, and give strength to the doubtful. Together, our resolve and determination will be fuel for years to come.
Gabrielle Giffords is a former U.S. Congresswoman from Arizona.