TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — I was rock climbing in the mountains above Tucson on Jan. 8, 2011, when I heard U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords was dead.
I was with my girlfriend, who got a message from a co-worker saying the congresswoman had been shot outside a suburban Tucson supermarket along with more than a dozen other people. The gunman was in custody.
We quickly learned Giffords was not dead, but others were. A mentally ill 22-year-old former community college student, Jared Loughner, had opened fire with a handgun, killing six people and wounding 13. The shooting at a Giffords meet-and-greet sparked a nationwide gun-control debate.
When I learned of the shooting, standing at the base of a cliff in the Santa Catalina Mountains, my girlfriend looked at me and said, “Do you have to go to work?”
I thought about that for a few seconds and said no. I knew there would be plenty of work in the days ahead. I had no clue.
A judge eventually deemed Loughner fit for trial, his schizophrenia controlled by medication, and he was convicted in federal court and sentenced to life in prison. The congresswoman, who Loughner shot through the head above the left eye, retired a year later, never having returned to significant work.
She went on to create a nonprofit, originally called Americans for Responsible Solutions but now known simply as Giffords, aimed at stemming the tide of gun deaths across the nation.
On Thursday Giffords, now 50, marked the 10th anniversary of the shooting with an online storyteller event hosted by Gannett’s Arizona media outlets, including the Arizona Republic and Arizona Daily Star.
Speaking in tandem with her speech pathologist, Dr. Fabi Hirsch, Giffords said learning to talk again has been frustrating. At first, she said, only say a few words would come, though her intellect remained completely intact.
“What, what, what. Chicken, chicken, chicken,” Giffords said, grinning, in a pre-recorded message.
Now, Giffords spends her days working with her nonprofit, working with Hirsch and physical therapists, doing yoga, riding her recumbent bike, and spending time with her husband, U.S. Senator Mark Kelly, who was a space shuttle astronaut in 2011. After a decade of daily work, she is handling short speeches and is determined to keep improving, a process Hirsch said will be lifelong.
“It will be a long, hard haul,” Giffords said. “I’m optimistic.”
Tucsonan Mary Reed was at the Safeway supermarket the day of the shooting with her daughter Emma McMahon, who was then in high school, and wanted to meet Giffords. Reed heard the pop-pop-pop of gunfire, then felt a sting in her arm, she said during the Gannett storyteller event.
She had been shot. Instinctively, she shielded her daughter, taking a second bullet in her other arm and a third in the back. McMahon was not hit.
After the shooting, Reed left in an ambulance and spent months healing, leaving McMahon to care for her younger brother. She stepped up in a way many teens don’t have to — shuttling her brother to events, making dinner, doing laundry. Life moved ahead uncomfortably, McMahon said.
“By Monday, I was back at school,” she said. “I was shocked that my school looked the same. My life at school felt wrong.”
McMahon skipped the denial stage of grief and went directly to anger, where she dwelled “quite a while,” she said.
The teen tried to run away, taking a gap year in Germany after graduation, but the shooting followed her. Anger consumed her at first, but that has faded. She left Tucson after high school for college on the East Coast. She hasn’t lived here since, she said.