Gabrielle Giffords in the battle of her life

The US congresswoman knows what it means to fight for what she believes in - fair pay for military members, healthcare reform, treatment for the mentally ill. After being shot in the head this week, she now wages her toughest fight of all.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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Her eyes are hazel. On Wednesday, Gabrielle Giffords managed to keep them open for a short time. Just a moment. Like a blink. Like the amount of time it takes for a woman to be speaking to a crowd and then to be lying on the ground, shot in the head.
Ms Giffords opened her eyes just long enough for her husband, Mark Kelly, and the doctor in her hospital room to notice. Then she opened them again, and again, four more times. The last time was for 30 seconds.
These were the first instances that Ms Giffords, a Democrat representing Arizona in the US House of Representatives, had opened her eyes since she was wounded in a shooting rampage last Saturday outside a shopping centre in Tucson.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a fellow Democrat in Congress, recalled this week that Mr Kelly asked his wife to give him a thumbs up. Ms Giffords couldn't immediately, but eventually was able to move her arm towards him. She touched his wedding ring.
Ms Wasserman Schultz told The Washington Post she couldn't explain the remarkable progress her friend had made since the shooting, except that perhaps "it was the power of friendship".
If that is so, then it is surely an instance of "the love you take being equal to the love you make". Ms Giffords is described as affable and immensely likable, more personality than politics, independent, intelligent, loyal to friends and devoted to her causes.
Tom Zoellner, a friend of Ms Giffords who volunteered on two of her campaigns for Congress, told The New York Times: "We once got into a conversation about the meaning of life and she had sort of made an existential decision that life was about helping other people, that life was about public service, and she was going to arrange her life around that idea."
One of Ms Giffords's former campaign foes, Jonathan Paton, the state senator whom she defeated in 2000, told the Times: "When something bad happened to you, she is the first person that would show up and talk to you about it."
That was the case in 2005. After Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding in New Orleans forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate the city, Ms Giffords, who was an Arizona state senator at the time, went to Houston, Texas, where many of the evacuees found refuge, to volunteer in relief efforts.
Last Saturday in Tucson, Ms Giffords was holding a community outreach event in the car park of a shopping centre. A gunman shot her in the head, then worked his way down the line of people who were waiting to talk with her. Six people died. Including Ms Giffords, there were 13 injured.
Ms Giffords had recently won re-election in the district, which sits in the bottom right-hand corner of the state and borders New Mexico to the east and Mexico to the south. Arizona as a state sits on the right side of the political divide. John McCain, the 2008 Republican candidate for president, represents Arizona in the Senate. Five of its eight House districts are red.
To win as a Democrat in such circumstances requires independence of thought and a willingness to stray from the Democratic party line on occasion. Decidedly pro-choice on the issue of abortion and a critic of the No Child Left Behind education law pushed through by George W Bush, Ms Giffords supports gun rights and is against helmet laws. A co-chair of the 11-member Congressional Motorcycle Safety Caucus, she rides her own BMW motorcycle without a helmet.
Yet there are some Democratic issues about which she is decidedly a party stalwart, such as stem-cell research and the minimum wage. She is hot on solar energy and in September 2007, nine months into her first term, she published a report titled "The Community Solar Energy Initiative, Solar Energy in Southern Arizona", in which she wrote that Arizona has enough sunshine to power the entire United States.
Ms Giffords was an ardent supporter of President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul, a cause she worked on at the state level when serving in the Arizona Senate. According to the Times, she said she was prepared to lose her seat to defend the healthcare plan. The bill passed into law last year.
Among her other initiatives were bills for mental health, improving education and health care for children, and all-day kindergartens.
Healthcare passage and several other Democratic initiatives in the past two years were among political agenda items attacked by so-called Tea Party conservatives in the last election campaign. She had won her previous runs with more than 54 per cent of the vote, but in 2010 Ms Giffords was declared victor against a Tea Party Republican, Jesse Kelly, with only 48 per cent of the vote - and only after three days of counting.
No politician in Arizona can avoid the issue of illegal immigration from Mexico. Ms Giffords is no exception. She is a long-time proponent of tough border security, but her work on the issue - unlike some Arizonans who favour enforcement-only positions against illegal immigrants - features a more integrated, comprehensive reform: securing the border using modern technology and an increase in the number of Border Patrol Agents, and fining companies that knowingly employ illegal immigrants.
Ms Giffords's stance on security extends to the military, where in May 2007 she voted for a controversial emergency spending bill to pay for the Iraq war. "I cannot, in good conscience, allow the military to run out of money while American servicemen and women are being attacked every day," she said before casting her vote.
She is the only member of Congress married to an active-duty member of the US armed forces. Mark Kelly, whom she married in 2007, is a navy pilot and astronaut who flew the space shuttle three times. During his last flight, in June 2008, Mr Kelly regularly sent his wife e-mails from space. She, in turn, had selected mariachi music to wake him in the morning.
The two met on a cultural exchange trip to China, when Ms Giffords was an Arizona state senator, according to ABC News. Their first date did not come until a year later and the venue - an Arizona state prison - was typical of their atypical relationship. (She was working on legislation dealing with capital punishment at the time.)
Their wedding was held "in the evening under ancient mesquites at an organic produce farm", according to a profile in the Times. Ms Giffords insisted at her wedding that "anything that wasn't biodegradable had to be reusable". Her wedding gown had been previously worn.
Mr Kelly and Ms Giffords have spent much of their married lives apart because of their careers. "The longest amount of time we've spent together is probably a couple of weeks at a stretch," Mr Kelly told the Times. "We won't always live this way, but this is how we started. It's what we've always done. It teaches you not to sweat the small stuff."
Mr Kelly was due to fly the shuttle again in April. His role in that mission is now in doubt, while he is at his wife's hospital bedside.
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Ms Giffords was 10 when Ronald Reagan was shot. Jim Brady, an aide of the president, was shot as well and became permanently disabled. At this point, doctors cannot say whether Ms Giffords will suffer Mr Brady's destiny. She can open her eyes. She can move her fingers and both arms.
The US government enacted a gun law, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, known familiarly as the Brady Bill. Bill Clinton signed it into law in 1993. For the first time, the United States demanded that people wishing to buy firearms in the US undergo a federal background check. The law creates a database that is shared around the country. When Jared Loughner, who is accused of shooing Ms Giffords, bought a Glock semi-automatic pistol with a 33-round magazine on November 30, his name didn't appear on the federal database.
It was his legal right to buy the gun.
Calls in the past week to restrict a magazine to 10 rounds (the previous such restriction expired in 2004) have been quietly ignored by congressmen and sidestepped by the White House. Lobbyists for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and other gun-control groups and their foes in the National Rifle Association have been active in Washington since the shooting last week.
rbeauchemin@thenational.ae

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