RALEIGH — Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had traveled more than 8,000 miles, across seven states in seven days, to deliver her message.
For Giffords, 43, the words came haltingly and with effort.
“Fight, fight, fight,” she said.
Giffords urged a small discussion group gathered Sunday at The Pit restaurant to take on the battle to expand criminal background checks on gun sales, speaking two years after being severely wounded in a mass shooting.
Giffords’ visit to the Triangle was marked by an opposition group’s offer of free ammunition to anyone who could locate one stop on her group’s schedule. It was the last stop on what Giffords called her Rights and Responsibilities tour.
Across the street, about 20 protesters with Grass Roots North Carolina held signs saying “Guns Save Lives.”
The protest was the group’s latest attempt to show its frustration with Giffords’ message and with event organizers.
A day earlier, Grass Roots North Carolina President Paul Valone publicly offered 100 rounds of free ammunition to the first person to identify the firing range Mark Kelly, Giffords’ husband, visited Sunday morning. The offer was made because Giffords’ and Kelly’s group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, didn’t publicly release details about their Raleigh visit, Valone said.
‘It’s the right thing to do’
He said he wasn’t promoting violence with the offer. He just thought it was a reasonable incentive.
“Because of the proposals that went before Congress ammunition is in short supply,” Valone said. “People are panic buying.”
By keeping the details hush-hush, he said, Giffords and Kelly were not engaging with real gun owners, just a pre-selected group.
Americans for Responsible Solutions Executive Director Pia Carusone said organizers made an effort to get a diverse group of roundtable participants to include gun owners and those from different professional backgrounds. About half of the 14 who attended the roundtable were gun owners, according to a self-survey. Ten of the 14 admitted to knowing someone who had been injured or killed because of gun violence.
The roundtable discussion was closed to the media.
Among those who attended was Yolanda Bagley of Durham. During the roundtable Bagley shared the story of her 24-year-old son, Jelani Dandy, who was shot and killed in November. One of his friends was later charged with murder, Bagley said.
She supported the expanded background checks, especially because her son’s alleged killer is claiming a mental illness.
“We have to make sure guns are in the right hands,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s not just about parents – it’s about the children.”
Grass Roots North Carolina protest organizer Sean Sorrentino disagreed. Expanding criminal background checks creates a hurdle for gun owners, Sorrentino said.
“It’s saying I have to prove my innocence before I can use my Second Amendment rights,” he said.
Kelly, a former astronaut, isn’t buying that argument.
“I don’t see how making it difficult for criminals and the mentally ill is taking away anybody’s Second Amendment rights except the criminals,” he said. “And, in a lot of cases you lose your rights when you are a convicted felon.”
‘Time to come together’
Kelly, a gun owner, said he’s a proud supporter of the Second Amendment. He’s served in the military, and has owned a gun since his 20s. He spent Sunday morning at Kidds Place Sporting Clay Range in Holly Springs.
He said he’s not blind to the changes necessary for passage of a federal law, especially after an criminal-background bill failed by six votes in the Senate in April.
“That’s why we’re traveling the country to see how people relate to firearms. It’s been quite informative,” Kelly said.
In Alaska, he said, he heard from one man who supported his entire family off hunting moose and bear. The needs and discussion have varied from state to state.
Americans for Responsible Solutions continues its push to rival the political power of the National Rifle Association.
“Part of our mission is to level the playing field,” Kelly said. “That over time members (of Congress) will vote with their conscience, not influenced by special interest.”
The group has raised about $11 million and gathered 500,000 members, Carusone said.
The political action committee was founded six months ago on the two-year anniversary of Giffords’ nearly fatal shooting in Tucson, Ariz. Six people were killed and 12 others injured. Reminders of the shooting are still visible on Giffords.
She still struggles to speak and walk. Her next stop in North Carolina will be in Asheville, where she will spend 12 days in rehabilitative therapy. Even facing these challenges, Giffords made the tour across more than 8,000 miles to share her message:
“Stopping gun (violence) takes courage. The courage to do what’s right. The courage of new ideas. … Now is the time to come together.
“Be responsible. Democrats, Republicans, everyone. We must never stop fighting. Fight, fight, fight. … Be courageous. The nation is counting on you.”
Staff reporter Andy Kenney and The Associated Press contributed.