The well-documented shooting at a community outreach event in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011 challenged every aspect of her physical and mental well-being, but as is detailed in the powerful documentary Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, her spirit never waned.
Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, from Julie Cohen and Betsy West, is an inspiring comeback story that shows how Giffords’ pushed ahead after the shooting and has become relentless as a leading activist in the battle against gun violence. Despite her near-death experience and subsequent struggles, Giffords heroically became the face and voice of a movement.
The film features extensive verité filming of the former Arizona congresswoman and her husband, astronaut turned Senator Mark Kelly, interspersed with interviews from Barack Obama and other friends and colleagues.
Beyond this, it is a touching portrait of a marriage that sustained the indomitable Giffords when gun violence forever altered her life. This is also something that has resulted in top honors. On July 7, Giffords was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom along with 16 others, including Simone Biles and Denzel Washington.
During the ceremony, President Joe Biden called his longtime friend “the embodiment of a single significant American trait ‘never, ever give up,'” adding, “Gabby is one of the most courageous people I have ever known.” He also credited her efforts for recent legislation to quell gun violence.
Giffords readily admits that her battle to recover following the shooting was a difficult one, but her mantra has always been Won’t Back Down. The movie is the first time people are able to see what happened after the shooting—her road to recovery following the incident and how she learned to walk and speak again.
The focus for Giffords has been to become a highly effective activist in the battle for gun violence prevention and to promote the understanding of aphasia, a language condition with which she still grapples.
“I won’t lie, it was hard. Some days were worse than others, but every day was an uphill battle,” Giffords exclusively tells Parade.com. “My support system—my family, my friends, my doctors, and my therapists—carried me through the darkest days.”
Read on for what the devotion of Gifford’s husband has meant to her health and wellness, how her fighting spirit helped with her recovery, and how we can be inspired by her grit and determination.
You are known as a fierce fighter. How did that help with your recovery and beyond?
It’s easy to give up in the face of adversity. I’m only human, and there have been countless times when I’ve wanted to surrender to apathy and hopelessness. But when I think about what I’ve gone through and how far I’ve made it, I can’t help but stand up and keep fighting. So many people die from gun violence every day in this country—more than 110.
Six people died on January 8, 2011, when I was shot in Tucson. I survived, so what am I going to make of the days I have left? That motivated me through the early days of my recovery and continues to give me momentum as I take life one day at a time.
What did your husband Mark’s devotion to you mean after the shooting and today?
I wouldn’t be where I am today without Mark. He stood by me during my hardest days and never lost hope or courage. He’s been my rock since before we were married, and he really pulled me through the first few years of my recovery. Before I was shot, I was always the more talkative one, but he’s always been able to make me laugh like no one else. There aren’t enough words to express my gratitude for Mark, so I’ll just say that his love and support mean the world to me.
How did you soldier on during the dark days of your recovery?
It took a lot of patience, work and time to start to see the other side of my recovery. I’m still in various types of therapy—and I probably will be for the rest of my life. But I’m no longer learning how to do the things I once did, like walking, talking and biking. I’m just practicing doing these activities and more, so every day they get a little easier and I get a little better at them. While the work of my recovery is ongoing, I was able to battle through some of the hardest days thanks to the support from my community.
What do people tell you in terms of how you inspire them? What does that mean to you?
People from all walks of life have reached out to me about their experiences with guns and gun violence, and each and every time I am honored and grateful that they chose to share them with me.
A couple of years ago, I had an extraordinary interaction with the sister of a first responder to the Tucson shooting. She told me about how her sister—the first responder—and her family have continued to struggle to this day with that incident. I had actually run into the first responder previously, and we had talked about that day—she told me that she still cries about it, and I encouraged her to move ahead. Her sister told me that this really meant a lot to her, and I felt privileged to be able to help someone through a tough time.
But not all of my interactions are related to gun violence. Last December, I shared my proudest moment from 2021 and asked my followers on Instagram to do the same. The responses I received were remarkable. Some shared about their cancer journeys, others talked about quitting smoking, surviving a year of teaching during the pandemic and moving past a death in the family by putting one foot in front of the other. One response that really stood out to me was from a new mom to a one-week-old baby who lived in Texas during the power grid failure that left millions of homes without power. She talked about keeping herself and her baby alive throughout those severe storms and loss of power. Her resilience really resonated with me.
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Why do you feel you are such a positive person?
I think being positive is the only thing that really keeps us going when times get tough. There’s so much I could be negative about, that we could all be negative about—but where does that get us? It helps that I have a lot of positive people in my life—I want to give a shout-out to my speech therapist, Fabi Hirsch, who is truly the best! That keeps me positive, too.
What are the life lessons and messages of the documentary?
The first one is in the title—don’t back down! I’ve faced so many challenges these past 11 years that I never could have anticipated before I was shot. I had to relearn how to walk and how to talk. I went from being able to only say “what” and “chicken” to giving a speech at the Democratic National Convention.
I hope that those who see the film are similarly inspired to persevere, no matter what difficulties they’re facing in their own lives, and to fight to make a difference wherever and however they can. One of the best ways to go about this, as the film shows, is to find a community. I wouldn’t have gotten this far without the support of all of the people who have been there for me in my life, and the community of gun safety advocates and survivors keeps me going whenever we hit a bump in the road.
What do you tell American adults and children who are terrified they will become victims of gun violence?
Unfortunately, because of the state of gun violence in our country, these fears are not unfounded. Nearly every American will know a victim of gun violence in their lifetime, and gun violence is now the leading cause of death for children. Rather than focusing on their studies and their friends, children today have grown up with lockdown drills, taught to crouch under their desks and make as little noise as possible. It’s not normal, and it’s not okay.
But rather than suggesting that anyone live a life paralyzed by fear, I would suggest getting involved in the fight for gun safety. Make your voices heard; let your elected officials know that the fear and trauma of gun violence are warping our societies and our communities. For years, the small but loud percentage of Americans who value gun rights above all other rights has drowned out the majority of Americans who believe in common-sense gun laws. That’s changing, and we need to make sure that our politicians hear from us.
How has your nonprofit helped change society?
In December 2012, a gunman murdered 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook, leading me to found the organization today known as Giffords. Just last month we saw a similar tragedy unfold in Uvalde, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers. In that intervening decade, we’ve worked hard to lay the groundwork for change.
We’ve helped pass more than 460 gun safety laws in states around the country. We’ve supported candidates up and down the ballot who have run on gun safety and won. We’ve fought the gun lobby in courts across the country as the NRA has unraveled and been mired in scandal. We’ve helped build a movement of students, doctors, gun owners, and community activists, all of whom are united in their desire to put an end to this epidemic. And finally, we’re on the verge of meaningful action in the Senate.
How can each of us help make our children safer and curb gun violence and school shootings?
Cars used to be the leading cause of death for children in this country. Now, it’s guns. More than 1,800 kids die from gun violence every year. They face threats from multiple fronts: from mass shootings in their schools to domestic violence at home, from violence in their communities to unsecured guns around their house.
One of the first and easiest steps to take to keep our children safe from gun violence is for gun-owning households to safely store our guns at home, which means leaving them locked and unloaded in a secure location. Nearly five million minors live in homes with at least one loaded and unsecured firearm, and while parents usually think their kids don’t know where their guns are, that’s not the case—their children can usually find and access the firearm within a few minutes.
The combination of weak gun safety laws and widespread gun ownership has created a dangerous environment for our children, who deserve to live free from gun violence. We must do everything we can to keep them safe. The bipartisan legislation that was just passed by Congress is an important step in the right direction.
What is the goal of the documentary Won’t Back Down?
The documentary’s directors, Betsy and Julie, did such a great job of telling a very human, relatable story. There’s tragedy and trauma, but there are also moments of humor and levity. They captured the love story between me and Mark, from his being there for me in the darkest days immediately following the shooting to my (loving!) critiques of his speeches when he was first running for the Senate.
Politics these days can be so partisan and lasting that systemic change sometimes feels out of reach. But if people who see the film come away with it feeling at all inspired that progress and change are possible, I will be happy.
Are you still biking? What is that like?
I am! I bike every week—as the film shows, listening to ’80s music and picking up trash along the way. Exercise and moving my body are important forms of stress release for me, and I love being outside in the streets of Tucson, the community I love so much. Every year, I ride in El Tour de Tucson, where our city comes together to celebrate health and fitness and raise money for more than 100 charities. Sometimes I bike when I visit Mark in D.C., as the film also shows—basically any chance I get, I’m on a bike!
How do we maintain our voice when we feel silenced?
There are many different ways of feeling silenced—from living with a disability like aphasia to feeling powerless in the face of a Supreme Court decision that will drastically affect our safety and our lives. And yet in either situation, I think the remedy is similar: use your voice in the way that you can to make whatever difference you can. Keep speaking up, and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too small or irrelevant. If what you’re doing isn’t working, try another way. When I can’t find the right word, sometimes I burst into song!
From Briarcliff Entertainment and CNN Films, Gabby Gifford’s Won’t Back Down will premiere in theaters nationwide on July 15.