WHITEFIELD, N.H. — Two years after being shot in the head, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona called on New Hampshire’s political leaders Friday to have courage in the fight to expand background checks on gun purchases.
“Stopping gun violence takes courage — the courage to do what’s right,” Giffords said in downtown Manchester with her husband, former Navy pilot and astronaut Mark Kelly, at her side. “I’ve seen great courage when my life was on the line.”
Giffords was shot and severely wounded while meeting with constituents in January 2011. Six people were shot to death in the attack, and 13 others were wounded.
The man who pleaded guilty in the shooting, Jared Lee Loughner, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He had passed a background check and legally bought a semiautomatic weapon months before the shooting.
Giffords and Kelly are in the midst of a seven-state tour to press for background check legislation currently stalled in a divided Congress.
The 42-year-old former congresswoman, a Democrat, has become the face of the gun control movement, while her husband is often its voice. Giffords continues to recover from her wounds, which left her right leg and arm partially paralyzed and affected her speech.
“Gabby and I are committed to doing this for the long haul,” Kelly said, flanked by several state law enforcement officials who support their effort.
The couple offer a unique perspective as longtime gun owners.
Earlier in the day in New Hampshire’s north country, Kelly purchased a Savage .30-06 bolt-action rifle at the Village Gun Shop in Whitefield, a popular stop for Republican politicians courting New Hampshire voters.
The purchase, and subsequent stop at a nearby shooting range, was meant to highlight the couple’s support for Second Amendment rights, despite their aggressive calls for expanded background checks.
Kelly, a military veteran, said the new rifle — which cost $409.95 on sale — would be his sixth or seventh gun.
“They may appreciate that I’m not some liberal East Coast person who’s never touched a gun in his life,” Kelly said.
Gun store owner Stan Holz noted that he’s already received hate mail and angry phone calls for agreeing to host Kelly’s visit, but thought it was important to listen to his views, regardless of whether he agrees with them.
In a statement earlier in the week announcing their New Hampshire visit, Kelly specifically called on New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte to support expanded background checks. The first-term senator voted in April against a Senate measure to close a so-called loophole that allows gun purchases without background checks at gun shows and on the Internet.
Opposed by the majority of Republicans and a handful of Democrats, the bill failed. It’s unclear if, or when, it may come up again on Capitol Hill, despite Giffords’ national tour.
At the afternoon news conference, Kelly and Giffords were careful not to criticize Ayotte directly. New Hampshire’s law enforcement community, which largely supports expanded background checks, has been reluctant to criticize Ayotte, who previously served as the state’s popular attorney general.
Nashua Police Commissioner Tom Pappas said that it’s “common sense to extend our existing laws to cover more sales of firearms.”
Auburn, N.H., officer Bill Barry added, “We just want to see our elected leaders take action.”
Ayotte spokesman Jeff Grappone dismissed Kelly’s criticism as a “false attack” from an “out-of-state special interest group.”
Ayotte did not meet with Giffords and Kelly, who sought a meeting during a phone conversation about a week ago.
“It was a private conversation, but a good conversation,” Kelly said.
Giffords and Kelly will appear at Portland City Hall on Saturday.