Against the backdrop of the national election and its aftermath of shock and awe (depending on which side you were on), the denouement of another political story quietly played out in a federal courthouse in Arizona. Former U.S. Representative (D-AZ) Gabrielle Giffords faced the man who put a bullet in her brain, viewing him for the first, and last, time on the dramatic day of his formal sentencing.
While the rest of the country roiled in post election post mortems, victims of the January 8, 2011 parking lot shooting in Tucson, Arizona, gathered in the courtroom to offer impact testimony at the sentencing of Jared Loughner, the man who killed six and wounded 13, most grievously, Representative Giffords, whose brain injury has left her permanently disabled and incapable of fulfilling her duties in Congress. She resigned on January 25, 2012.
Loughner pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty; at the hearing, his prison psychologist was the first to speak. USA Today reports:
Christina Pietz, Loughner’s prison psychologist, told the court she interacts daily with Loughner. She said his mental health is steadily improving and she believed him to be competent to understand the proceedings against him and to proceed with sentencing despite his mental illness.
As Pietz spoke, Loughner stared down at the table before him. Though he had a legal right to address the court, Loughner declined to make a statement.
One by one the attending victims and their family members spoke directly to the man who had so tragically altered their lives, some with anger, others with resilience and forgiveness. But when Giffords stepped up to the podium with her husband, Mark Kelly, at her side, the attention was all on the woman who had lost so much – both personally and professionally – in the attack. Given her difficulty in speaking, her statement was delivered by her husband (the statement can be accessed here in its entirety).
Her life has been forever changed. Plans she had for our family and her career have been immeasurably altered. Every day is a continuous struggle to do those things she was once so very good at. Gabby is a people person: she exudes kindness, creativity, and compassion. If she were not born with the name – “Gabby” – someone would have given it to her. Now she struggles to deliver each and every sentence. Her gift for language can now only be seen in Internet videos from a more innocent time.
There’s more. Gabby struggles to walk. Her right arm is paralyzed. She is partially blind. Gabby works harder in one minute of an hour – fighting to make each individual moment count for something – than most of us work in an entire day.
As Kelly spoke, Gabby stood firmly, her eyes fixed on the man who had tried to kill her. She held her gaze, but according to the Huffington Post,
Loughner showed no emotion, and looked at the other victims. His mother sobbed nearby.
Kelly not only expressed to Loughner the lifelong impact his violence had wreaked on Giffords, he made a passionate plea for more effective gun control laws and enforcement, an aspect of this crime that garnered much conversation in the immediate aftermath but has, so far, netted no real change.
We have a political class that is afraid to do something as simple as have a meaningful debate about our gun laws and how they are being enforced. We have representatives who look at gun violence, not as a problem to solve, but as the white elephant in the room to ignore. As a nation we have repeatedly passed up the opportunity to address this issue. After Columbine; after Virginia Tech; after Tucson and after Aurora we have done nothing.
In this state we have elected officials so feckless in their leadership that they would say, as in the case of Governor Jan Brewer, “I don’t think it has anything to do with the size of the magazine or the caliber of the gun.” She went on and said, “Even if the shooter’s weapon had held fewer bullets, he’d have another gun, maybe. He could have three guns in his pocket” – she said this just one week after a high capacity magazine allowed you to kill six and wound 19 others, before being wrestled to the ground while attempting to reload. Or a state legislature that thought it appropriate to busy itself naming an official Arizona state gun just weeks after this tragedy occurred, instead of doing the work it was elected to do: encourage economic growth, help our returning veterans and fix our education system.
The crowd in the courtroom listened to Kelly’s emotional plea on his wife’s behalf, as they had when he made poignant comment about the youngest of the victims, 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, who had been in the parking with an older friend, interested in politics and excited to meet her Representative, and was standing near Giffords when the shooting began. She died from a gunshot wound.
Kelly concluded his statement, then he and Gabby walked back to their seats, her head high and eyes clear. The judge pronounced the sentence shortly thereafter: Loughner, 24, was sentenced to seven consecutive life terms in prison and an additional 140 years.
As I followed this story, considering the scope of the tragedy and the incredible grace and courage Giffords has shown throughout, both in her recovery and the reinvention of almost every aspect of her life, I was struck by a profound dichotomy. As we’ve watched, during this recent election cycle, politicians of every stripe who lie, cheat and stumble on the tightrope of honor and integrity, it’s instructive to observe this former politician deal so honorably with the hand she was dealt. Gabby Giffords has set a new bar for dignity… admirable at any time, all the more so in a political culture of conflict, pettiness and contradiction. She is sorely missed.
Mr. Loughner, pay close attention to this: Though you are mentally ill, you are responsible for the death and hurt you inflicted upon all of us on January 8th of last year. You know this. Gabby and I know this. Everyone in this courtroom knows this.
You have decades upon decades to contemplate what you did. But after today. After this moment. Here and now. Gabby and I are done thinking about you.