PORTLAND – Their signature piece of legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases was defeated in the Senate this spring, but former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, told Mainers on Saturday that they will continue to push for what they call responsible gun laws.

“Never stop fighting. Fight, fight, fight,” Giffords said in slightly slurred speech before about 100 people inside Portland City Hall, many of them members of Americans for Responsible Solutions, formed after Giffords was shot in the head in 2011 at a constituent meeting in her district in Arizona.

Since her recovery, which required six months of hospitalization, Giffords and Kelly have been calling for more restrictions on the sale of guns to keep them out of hands of people like Jared Lee Loughner, a mentally ill man who pleaded guilty to shooting Giffords and 18 others, killing six, and is now serving seven consecutive life sentences in prison.

Giffords remains partially paralyzed on her right side and had to use her left hand to pick up her right and place it on the podium in City Hall’s State of Maine room. She also pumped her left fist while speaking and frequently nodded while others addressed the crowd, particularly when they called on the Senate to bring the background check measure up for another vote.

She herself spoke only a minute or so, but Kelly made the point that the couple own guns and come from states with strong traditions of gun ownership — Giffords from Arizona and Kelly from Texas. Kelly said Americans for Responsible Solutions isn’t interested in taking guns from law-abiding owners, but wants background checks expanded from sales in licensed gun stores to private transactions, Internet sales and sales at gun shows, to keep criminals and the dangerously mentally ill from buying guns.

Kelly said the couple noted signs along the highway in Maine warning about Maine’s operating under the influence laws and how they are intended to keep people safe.

Like those OUI laws, he said, background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill “make sense — they’re for your safety.”

Giffords and Kelly were joined by Mark and Jackie Barden and Nicole Hockley, parents of children killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December.

Barden said the families were “disappointed but not defeated” this spring when an attempt to cut off debate in the Senate and bring up the bill requiring expanded background checks fell six votes short. Both Maine senators, Independent Angus King and Republican Susan Collins, voted to cut off debate and said they were in favor of the bill.

Hockley said the Newtown families made a promise in the wake of the shooting, which left 20 first-graders and six adults dead, that they would “transform this tragedy into change.”

She said this year’s Independence Day, the first since her son, Dylan, was killed, should serve as a reminder “that we’re a courageous country that takes on big problems and solves them.”

“We’re all working this summer to get the remaining votes (in the Senate) and we won’t rest until we do,” Hockley said. “Our hearts are broken, but our spirits are not.”

Kelly said his and Giffords’ seven-state tour included Maine to help the couple understand the range of the country’s gun cultures and make the point that those who own guns lawfully and use them responsibly have nothing to fear from expanded background checks.

Although both Collins and King supported that effort, Kelly and others called on them to lobby their fellow senators to get the votes needed to move the measure to a vote.

After the event, Kelly said Americans for Responsible Solutions plans to get involved in next year’s elections, to push those who didn’t support their proposal to come around to their thinking, or elect opponents who do back limits on gun sales. The organization has formed a super PAC, he said, and hopes to eventually counter the influence of the National Rifle Association, which gives millions to congressional campaigns each year.

Earlier Saturday, Giffords and Kelly had lunch in Kennebunkport with former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, The Associated Press reported. They were planning to fly to North Carolina, the final stop on their tour, late Saturday night. 

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com