After his wife, former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, was nearly assassinated two and a half years ago, former astronaut Mark Kelly became a gun-control activist who, with Giffords, founded a gun-safety organization called Americans for Responsible Gun Solutions. The couple is in Washington this week to lobby senators to support legislation to expand background checks for gun buyers. They have joined forces with another group activated by tragedy, the families of the Newtown victims, doubling down on the power of their collective experience in what history will record as the personalization of gun-control lobbying.
Kelly says that in a series of one-on-one meetings with members of Congress, the lawmakers were cordial and respectful to Giffords, but too often noncommittal on support for gun legislation. Having the Newtown families in the room can be a first step in changing the dynamic, and can even seal the deal. “When you meet with parents who have lost a 6 year old, it’s difficult to look that person in the face and say you’re not going to do anything,” says Kelly.
The Boston Marathon bombing on Monday may have upended a vote on the Manchin-Toomey bill which proposes stricter background checks for gun buyers and was originally scheduled for this week. On Tuesday amid reports that the sponsors were having trouble reaching the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster, Kelly attended a breakfast meeting hosted by The Christian Science Monitor and was asked if he was pessimistic about the situation. “I’m not completely pessimistic,” he said, noting that two weeks ago the conventional wisdom was that the legislation was dead. “It’s an uphill climb to get there but over the coming days we have a chance to convince people to stand with us, and not stand with the gun lobby.”
Among those he would meet with in the afternoon was Arizona senator Jeff Flake, who the previous day had posted on his Facebook page that he intends to vote no on the background checks bill. “The problem with a lot of U.S. senators, they’re just looking for a reason to get to no,” says Kelly, placing the blame on the seemingly all-powerful gun lobby and its now almost mythic role in elections. He kept returning to Flake, claiming it was because the Facebook posting was fresh, but also because Flake is a good friend of his wife's. Kelly’s disappointment was palpable: If he can’t turn Flake, Gabby’s hometown senator, into a “yes” vote, what does that say about the bill’s chances?
“Does it make you want to run?” Dave Cook from The Monitor asked Kelly. “Run away?” he quipped, brushing aside the suggestion that he may challenge Flake, newly elected last year to a six-year term in the senate, focusing instead on the possibility that he could yet turn Flake from a “no” to a “yes.” Kelly didn’t name names, but said he has sat in members’ offices and, after saying they agree on background checks and an assault weapons ban, turn around and say they can’t vote for any of that because of the politics. “We need to convince them that there is an organization out there that will defend them.”
An infrastructure to rival the National Rifle Association is being put in place as a number of groups spring to life in the wake of the Newtown mass shooting. “They (NRA) had a hundred-year head start, so this is going to take a bit of time,” says Kelly. One of the goals of Americans for Responsible Gun Solutions is to provide a counter-weight to the NRA when lawmakers calculate the political risk of their votes, and to recruit more like-minded candidates. “We will be there to support them, and if they don’t do what we’re asking, we will be there to replace them,” says Kelly.
Asked about the political problem of intensity, where gun-rights activists are more focused and more likely to be single-issue voters, Kelly drew on his background as an astronaut, recalling people asking him why the mission to Mars was suspended. His answer: the space program was in the top 10 of issues people were concerned about, but it was never in the top three. Until the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, that was where gun control ranked, “but Newtown moved it up on the list a whole lot,” he says. “It’s a top priority for me and Gabby, but I understand it’s not everybody’s top priority.”
Kelly sounds like a man with a new mission, someone who understands that whatever happens on Capitol Hill in this Congress is not the end of the conversation; it’s the beginning of a long struggle against a wily foe that knows how to win even when losing. With a number of NRA-friendly amendments waiting to weaken the bill before the senate, Kelly defended the background checks bill as it currently stands but said he could imagine reaching the point “where this is so watered down that our organization would not support it.”