DOVER, N.H. — Thirty months after she was shot through the head, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords sits in a New Hampshire restaurant facing parents of children killed in the nation's latest school shooting.
They are here to talk political strategy, but Giffords doesn't say much. She doesn't have to.
The 43-year-old Democrat has become the face of the fight for gun control — a woman now known as much for her actions as her words as she recovers from a 2011 attack that changed her life and ended six others. Giffords has already traveled more than 8,000 miles this week, her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, at her side, encouraging political leaders from Alaska to Maine to have the courage to defy the National Rifle Association.
"I don't think any of us thought this was going to be easy," Kelly tells parents of children killed in the Newton, Conn., school shootings, with Giffords next to him, nodding. "This is not going to be a quick fix. But we're trying."
The couple is nearing the end of a seven-state-in-seven-day tour across America, meeting with allies and opponents to generate momentum for federal legislation that would expand background checks on gun purchases. It's a scaled-back version of a broad legislative package to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines proposed in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting rampage that left 20 children dead. But even scaled back, the measure was defeated in the Senate in April and has stalled in a divided Congress now preparing for its summer recess.
As Giffords' tour stretched into Maine on Saturday, the couple shared a private lunch with former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, in Kennebunkport, Maine. It's unclear if they discussed gun control.
Giffords' cross-country trek is the centerpiece of a summertime campaign designed to pressure elected officials in their own back yards. At the same time, her recently formed super PAC and related nonprofit group have ambitious plans to expand their political clout through the 2014 midterm elections and beyond. Organizers say that the group, known as Americans for Responsible Solutions, is expected to raise at least $20 million to fuel paid TV ads and political activities to coincide with the next election, the next gun control vote or both.
So far, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has bankrolled much of the campaign to expand background checks through his own organization, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, pouring more than $12 million into advertising to pressure lawmakers in places like New Hampshire, Arizona and Arkansas.
But this week, Giffords and Kelly are playing a more personal role. They are eating pie, sharing hugs and having frank conversations to connect with voters in traditional gun-owning states whose leaders have been largely reluctant to support expanded background checks in the face of NRA opposition.
And they are shooting guns to help make their point.
Kelly, a former Navy pilot whose parents were police officers, purchased a new rifle — he said it was his sixth or seventh gun — at the Village Gun Shop in New Hampshire Friday. He waited less than five minutes for a background check and later tested his Savage .30-06 bolt-action rifle at a shooting range. Giffords joined him at a Nevada shooting range earlier in the week, firing a gun for the first time since a mentally ill man took aim at her and opened fire in a Tucson, Ariz., shopping center. The couple is traveling with a handful of guns packed in a suitcase.
Sandy Holz, the shop's owner in Whitefield, N.H., says she's reluctant to endorse broad gun control legislation but would support a bill requiring background checks for sales at gun shows and on the Internet, as the failed Senate bill would have done. But there is little sign of movement in Washington.
More than two years after the attack, Giffords travels with nurses and a speech therapist. Her right leg and arm are partially paralyzed. She walks on her own, her right leg dragging slightly, and she climbs stairs, often with Kelly or a staff member holding her left hand.
The brain injury has affected her ability to speak. Giffords offers enthusiastic but slightly slurred stump speeches, in a halting style that sometimes brings tears to listeners' eyes.
"We must never stop fighting. Fight. Fight. Fight. Be bold, be courageous, the nation is counting on you," she said at a Portland, Maine, news conference.