TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — It was the place where former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords last spoke and walked without limitations; where Emily Nottingham’s son became the first Congressional aide to die in the line of duty; where a 9-year-old girl was gunned down while waiting to shake hands with a politician.
Survivors of the 2011 shooting massacre that wounded 13 and killed six reunited for the first time Wednesday outside the Tucson shopping center where the horrific shooting occurred to deliver pleas for new gun controls.
Giffords, who is still recovering from her injuries, spoke for only a few seconds. She walked with her husband’s help and placed a white flower bouquet along a memorial outside the Safeway grocery store in honor of the shooting victims.
“Be bold. Be courageous,” Giffords said. “Please support background checks.”
Giffords and Kelly had returned to the Safeway previously to visit the memorial, but Wednesday marked their first public event at the store since the shooting. Sheriff’s deputies were there to provide security.
Shooting victims and families of the deceased gathered at the event, clutching bright, saffron-hued roses. Giffords gave some of them hugs.
At one point during the news conference, Giffords threw a victorious fist in the air and flashed a wide grin.
“Fight, fight, fight,” she said, recalling the words she tells her husband before her regular therapy sessions.
The sun-kissed gathering Wednesday was far from the horror that took place on a similar morning 26 months ago.
Emily Nottingham recalled that her son’s body was left on the sidewalk outside the supermarket for hours as investigators scrambled to make sense of the chaos. Her son Gabe Zimmerman, Gifford’s director of community outreach, was 30 years old when he died in the shooting.
“It’s very hard to be here today,” Nottingham said. “The system is riddled with holes — bullet holes. It needs to be fixed.”
Susan Hileman described her excitement before the 2011 event as she waited to introduce her 9-year-old neighbor, aspiring politician Christina-Taylor Green, to Giffords. Green was the youngest of those killed.
“I looked at Gabby and I looked at Christina, and I could only imagine the sparks that would fly when the two of them got to shake hands. It was really going to be something,” Hileman said, before her voice turned dark. “It really was something, wasn’t it?”
Jared Lee Loughner, 24, was sentenced in November to seven consecutive life sentences, plus 140 years, in the Tucson shooting. The rampage happened at a meet-and-greet event organized by Giffords outside the grocery store on Jan. 8, 2011.
Giffords was joined Wednesday by her husband, Mark Kelly. Kelly said it was not difficult to return to the place where his wife nearly died. The hard part, he said, was persuading Congress to act.
A gun control group started by Giffords and Kelly began airing a new pro-gun control television ad in Arizona and Iowa on Tuesday. Giffords and Kelly support extending background checks to gun shows and Internet purchases. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up tougher firearm regulations Thursday, and some lawmakers have already expressed their opposition to universal background checks, including Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.
“This discussion is not really about the Second Amendment,” Kelly said. “It’s about public safety and keeping guns out of the hands of the dangerously mentally ill.”
Kelly, who was not present when the shooting occurred, recalled the events of the Tucson massacre. Kelly said Loughner walked directly toward Giffords and shot her once in the head before directing fire at the crowd around her. He released 33 bullets in 15 seconds, Kelly said.
“It was clear that the shooter had a history of mental illness, but he had easy access to a gun,” Kelly said. “If things were different, he would have failed that background check.”
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