Courthouse News reporter Brad Poole reflects on the lingering effects of a shooting that gripped the nation and a southwestern city — and sparked a nationwide gun-control debate.
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.
After I got home the night of the shooting, I called Mark Kimble, a former co-worker who was Giffords’ district communications director and was by her side during the shooting. When gunfire erupted, Kimble said he scrambled behind a concrete pillar and the gunman turned away, shooting people standing in line to talk to their congresswoman one by one.
It was surreal hearing these words from a man I had known for more than a decade.
The next 14 days are a blur.
I started every day at a hospital news conference, then shuttled around the city, tracking down information. I worked two weeks straight, often 12 hours or more per day, stopping only when Reuters handed the story off to a reporter in Houston where Giffords was transferred for long-term treatment.
I covered two funerals (both from outside the churches at the families’ request) and went to countless news conferences with law enforcement, other first responders and at the hospital. I covered a speech President Barack Obama gave at University of Arizona and a couple vigils.
After a few days, the weight of what was happening began to sink onto my shoulders.
At the time, I lived in an isolated house at the end of a half-mile gravel driveway. One day, I stopped in the driveway and sobbed for 10 minutes before heading into the house. It became a daily ritual. I kept my composure for work — taking notes, asking questions, listening, absorbing what I could so I could churn it out for the world — then the second I hit gravel, I sobbed.
Virtually everyone in Tucson has a Jan. 8 story.
Loughner shot 19 people, but hundreds of thousands were affected — people whose children died, whose friends were injured, whose neighbors responded in an ambulance crew or were law enforcement officers who collected bloody clothing from the scene. The pain spread like a pandemic across the city.
For me, it struck most intensely two years after the shooting.
In May 2013, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department released thousands of pages of police reports, photos, and evidence logs from the investigation. There were lists of discarded bloody clothing, accounts of people huddling in nearby stores, listening to the pandemonium outside. Among the reports was one filed by the first officer to come upon Christina-Taylor Green, a 9-year-old girl shot that day.
Christina-Taylor had been shot through the chest side-to-side, the officer wrote. After a futile attempt to stem the bleeding by stuffing gauze into the wounds, the officer moved on. He knew the girl, who was there to meet her hero Giffords, was going to die.
I wrote about her funeral, speaking to a classmate who said he was going to miss her. Christina-Taylor makes me think of my own daughter, who in 2011 was 20. For years, I occasionally woke up in the middle of the night, a vision of Christina-Taylor lying in a family friend’s arms, bleeding to death while her parents were at work.
It’s a scene I never actually saw, but it haunts me.
I still cry every Jan. 8. Some years I have gone back to the Safeway, always alone, trying not to be conspicuous wiping away tears, hearing the gunshots and screams in my mind. Last year was the first that I wasn’t gripped with grief. Part of me is glad the pain has subsided, but part of me is afraid to let it go.
At times feeling so much pain seems ridiculous to me. I didn’t get shot. The fathers and uncles and sisters and brothers who died or were injured weren’t mine; they were strangers. Yet the pain is real, and although it has diminished, it’s still there. It lingers like a ghost, emerging when I don’t expect it – when I am standing in line at the grocery store or waiting at a red light.
There are several memorials around town to the Jan. 8 shooting victims. There’s a trailhead named after Giffords’ aide Gabe Zimmerman, who died lunging at the gunman. The new memorial will be open downtown next month. And there is a park named after Christina-Taylor Green. I haven’t been able to bring myself to go there.
Someday I will, but not yet.