How Gabby Giffords Survived a Shot to the Head, and Outsmarted the NRA

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Defeating Ayotte was a defining moment for Giffords Courage, Ambler says. “We were able to show, three years after she sided with the NRA and voted against expanded background checks, that there was a political cost to voting against safer gun laws—even in a purple, gun-owning state like New Hampshire. We weren’t just ‘right’ on the issue; gun safety was a winning issue.”

Heading into 2018, Giffords Courage felt the political winds were finally favorable enough to proceed to stage four, in which a phalanx of candidates would run aggressively on guns. They were deep into the vetting phase when Parkland happened. On Valentine’s Day, a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others. The shooting was tragically familiar, but the survivors’ response was new. A group of savvy students organized the March for Our Lives, which energized millions of high school and college students, an uprising that captivated the nation.

Giffords Courage had targeted 2018 as the year to go wide. The Parkland uprising was rocket fuel.

Moms Demand Action created Students Demand Action, which has chapters at 400 high schools and colleges. That’s in addition to MFOL’s 300 school chapters. Watts says Moms Demand Action tripled its membership that year, to more than 6 million. Suddenly, it was larger than the NRA. “Americans realized they needed to get off the sidelines,” Watts says. “We immediately took that newfound size and translated it into political power.”

The NRA got pummeled in the midterms. Democrats flipped the House and picked up 40 seats—their best showing in a congressional election since the post-Watergate landslide of 1974. The party also flipped 349 state legislative seats, six state legislative chambers, and seven governorships, most in large battleground states. Those would be crucial to the big redistricting fights ahead, following the 2020 census.

Frustration with Donald Trump’s shambolic presidency was undoubtedly the big force behind the blue wave. But people on both sides of the gun debate were finally voting on the issue. CNN’s exit poll showed that gun control was the fourth most important voter issue, after health care, immigration, and the economy. The NBC exits found that 60 percent of voters favored stronger gun laws, including a startling 42 percent of gun owners.

And the state legislatures, consistently on the forefront on guns, felt the wave rising and collectively reversed course. After decades of NRA dominance, states passed only nine pro-gun laws last year—and an unprecedented 67 gun-safety bills.

The NRA’s aura of invincibility was shattered, Spitzer says. “It had this reputation, if they target you for defeat, that (a) they’ll make your life miserable, and (b) they’ll probably succeed.” That narrative held until 2018, he said, with the political class treating gun safety as a third rail. “It’s no longer a third rail,” Spitzer says. “It’s been deactivated, de-electrified.”

NRA fundraising has sputtered, and it finished 2018 $36 million in the red. The organization has been plagued by reports of lavish spending and profiteering by executives. A bitter power struggle between its president, Oliver North, and executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, resulted in North’s ouster last year, followed by the resignation of eight board members and sweeping layoffs.

The harshest blow came on August 6, when New York attorney general Letitia James announced a civil suit seeking to dissolve the organization. “The NRA is fraught with fraud and abuse,” she said, charging that “top executives funneled millions into their own pockets.” Because the NRA is chartered in New York, the state could potentially shut it down.

After Gabby wowed the SEAL team in Kandahar, in 2008, Jimmy Hatch invited her to skydive with them at their training facility outside Tucson. He was stunned when she accepted, and surprised each step of the way. “I thought, Okay, she’s going to come in with a posse,” he told me. “She showed up by herself, wearing a sweatshirt, a pair of jeans.” First-timers tend to lose their shit when they board the plane, he said. Gabby was chatty, asking about the crew so she could thank them later.

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