Ron Barber: A dozen years after Tucson’s mass shooting, Congress is still failing to address gun violence

From Ron Barber, who was wounded that day while working as a congressional staffer, a remembrance of the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shooting in Tucson, at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ Congress on Your Corner event. Barber was later elected to Congress after Giffords retired.

In 19.6 seconds, six people lay dying and 13 others were wounded in front of a Safeway supermarket. The gunman was a 22-year-old man with serious undiagnosed mental health issues.

Jan. 8, 2011, was brisk Saturday morning in Tucson, when Congresswoman Gabby Giffords arrived for her 21st “Congress on your Corner.” Gabby enjoyed these events because she got to hear the unfiltered comments of the people she was elected to serve. She had long said that the title “representative” was more than a job title, it was a job description. In her view, she could not be a good member of Congress without directly learning what was important to her constituents.

Promptly at 10 a.m., Gabby and I took our places in front of the American and Arizona flags. Our staff and interns were in position to register constituents and to distribute the various policy papers that were of current interest. At precisely 10:10 a.m. the shooting began. Out of the corner of my left eye I saw the gunman lunge at Gabby with a handgun. He shot her once in the head and then he turned the gun on the rest of us. I was shot in the face and the thigh. U.S. District Chief Judge John Roll was shot in the back. The shooter discharged 33 bullets into the crowd of constituents.

As the shooter moved down the line of constituents, he fired quickly. His targets had no way to escape. He killed Judge Roll, Gabe Zimmerman, Christina Taylor Green (a 9-year-old girl born on Sept. 11, 2001), Dorothy “Dot” Morris, Dorwan Stoddard, Phillis Schneck and wounded Gabby Giffords, Bill Badger, Ken Dorushka, Eric Fuller, Randy Gardner, Suzi Hileman, George Morris, Mary Reed, Pam Simon, Mavanell “Mavy” Stoddard, Jim Tucker, Ken Veeder and me.

When the shooter ran out of bullets, he tried to load a new magazine but he dropped it. Pat Maisch, a quick-witted constituent, grabbed the magazine and would not give it up. As this happened two other constituents, Bill Badger and Roger Salzgaber, brought the shooter to the ground and held him there waiting for law enforcement to arrive.

There were so many heroes that day and their actions prevented more wounded or murdered people. Nurses and doctors who were there shopping or waiting to meet Gabby rushed to attend to the wounded, as did staff from the supermarket. Nancy Bowman, a nurse, and David Bowman, her husband and a doctor, assisted the wounded and did triage on who should be given priority for transportation to the hospital. Their fast action saved lives, as did the EMTs from Northwest Fire.

The people of Tucson and Pima County refused to let that awful tragedy define who we are. 

Instead, they set up three spontaneous memorials, walked in procession to Gabby’s office, reached out to the survivors and those whose loved ones were killed and sent messages of hope and love to all of us. The medical staff at University Medical Center, operated with great skill and saved our lives.

Survivors and family members of those who were murdered formed nonprofit groups to help our community. They also traveled to other states following mass shootings to provide support to those who had been directly affected by these tragedies. And they went to Congress to advocate for commonsense gun laws. To date, Congress has not passed legislation to bring about real change.

Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans want stricter gun laws. In 2023 those numbers ranged from 56 percent to 87 percent in favor, depending on the specific proposed gun laws. In 2024, senators and representatives must pay attention to what their constituents support and introduce legislation reduce gun violence in our country. Voters should find out what are their candidates’ positions on gun law changes and vote accordingly.

What remains to be done is pretty straightforward and would minimize and, perhaps, prevent future mass shootings. State legislatures and governors have passed laws requiring everyone who buys a gun to have a background check, reducing the size of magazines, establishing “red flag” laws (which allow people to petition for the temporary confiscation of an individual’s firearms if that person is deemed to be a risk to themself or others) and banning assault weapons. None of these measures have passed in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives.

The American people support these and other reasonable laws in high percentages but our federally elected officials have yet to respect the positions of voters. 

As Gabby often says, we have to “fight, fight, fight” for meaningful changes in our gun laws. There is a nationwide network of people who have been directly affected by mass shootings and we will never give up until our federal elected officials have the courage to do what is right to address this significant public health and safety problem.