Tucson shooting survivor: “We must continue to be a voice for those who can no longer speak.”

Gabby Giffords and Pam Simon (right). Photo courtesy of Shelley Welander.
Gabby Giffords and Pam Simon (right). Photo courtesy of Shelley Welander.

I met Gabrielle (Gabby) Giffords when she was a 30-year-old state representative for a district in Tucson, Arizona. As a junior high and high school teacher, I would regularly visit the state capitol to advocate for education. While I got to know many of our state lawmakers, I formed a special bond with Gabby. She had a “constituents come first” attitude and made a tremendous effort to connect with people. Often Gabby and I would meet for coffee to discuss proposed education bills. She became more than my state representative, but a friend as well.

In 2006, I retired as a teacher – the same year Gabby launched her campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. With freedom from a work schedule, I threw myself into her campaign, organizing teachers to canvass and call on her behalf. When Gabby won the election, she asked me to be on her staff. I didn’t think I was qualified, but Gabby insisted, saying, “Pam, you taught junior high, you can do anything!” Although my husband and I had intended to retire, I instead accepted a part-time job as Gabby’s outreach coordinator.

As part of my job in the congressional office, I organized advisory committees on veterans affairs, education and senior issues and met with members of the community on the congresswoman’s behalf.  I also helped organize regular “Congress on Your Corner” events, giving Gabby’s constituents an opportunity to meet and talk with her about issues affecting their lives. These events were what representative government was supposed to be: people from all walks of life sharing their personal stories with Gabby so she could better represent their needs.

On January 8, 2011, we had planned a Congress on Your Corner event in front of a Safeway grocery store in Tucson. It was a crisp winter day, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Per the usual, we set up a backdrop with the Arizona state flag on one side and the American flag on the other.

Gabby took her position between the flags and a line of people formed. What we did not know at the time was that an armed man was inside the Safeway, scoping out our event and planning to wreak havoc.

Gabby was speaking to a couple as the man exited the Safeway and walked briskly through the crowd straight toward her. I heard a loud noise that sounded like firecrackers or a balloon popping and my immediate thought was that this was a prank.

But, sadly, it was no prank. The next thing I knew, I was face down on the ground in excruciating pain. I had been shot in the wrist and chest – a single bullet ripped through my body, chipping my ribs and missing my heart by a quarter of an inch. I saw Gabby go down, and then my colleague, Ron.

It was over in less than 20 seconds. That was all the time it took to kill six innocent people – including a precious 9-year-old girl – and injure 13 more. Additional people likely would have died had the shooter not been subdued and disarmed by heroes at the scene as he attempted to reload. Gabby was shot through the head and sustained serious injuries.

As for me, a good Samaritan rushed out of the Safeway, took off his sweater and put it under my face. He told me everything was going to be okay and he would stay with me until help arrived. I believed him, and felt a warmth come over me as I lay there. The bullet did not hit a single vital organ.

I recovered and was back on the job five weeks later. My physical wounds were healing, but the emotional wounds had barely begun to heal. It would take months, even years, of counseling and soul-searching to come to terms with the fact that a highly-disturbed man was able to access a gun so easily and have a deadly impact on so many lives.  

I am often recognized as one of the victims of this tragedy.  People want to share their story about that day and how profoundly the shooting affected their lives. They want to offer support, comfort and love.

A year and a half after the shooting I retired from the congressional office. A month later the Aurora, CO,  shooting happened and I knew I must speak out. I became involved in an up-and-coming gun violence prevention organization that would later become Everytown for Gun Safety. I started off doing simple things like signing letters to lawmakers as a gun violence survivor, urging them to make gun violence prevention a priority.

One day, I was in New York City with other survivors of the Tucson shooting. The media was there and wanted to hear our stories. There have been times in my life when I have suffered from stage fright and a situation like this would have been too overwhelming for me. But, instead, I stepped up to the microphone and didn’t feel a shred of nervousness. I thought to myself, I know what I want to say – what I NEED to say – and I’m going to say it.

This was my “aha” moment.

I knew from then on that I would stand tall and use my voice for change. As a gun violence survivor passionate about finding solutions to this problem, I knew it was my duty to put a face on this crisis and stand up against the gun lobby and the lawmakers who support their dangerous “guns everywhere, for anyone” agenda. That’s why I’ve even joined the Everytown Survivor Network, to join other Americans who have been personally affected by gun violence to work together to fight for solutions that will help save lives.

Pam Simon, photo courtesy of Ann Eve Cunningham.
Pam Simon, photo courtesy of Ann Eve Cunningham.

To be a voice for change has been the most significant thing I have done for my personal healing, and the progress we’ve made is nothing short of remarkable.

Even in just the past few years, the gun safety movement has logged a number of significant wins. We have helped close loopholes in the criminal background check system, elected gun sense champions in several states and held lawmakers accountable for siding with the gun lobby instead of their constituents. We are educating gun owners and non-gun-owners alike about safe and responsible gun storage. We are keeping the gun violence prevention issue a priority in statehouses and boardrooms across the country.

As we have seen in almost every successful movement throughout history, resistance builds strength. An analogy I like to use came to me after I bought a young tree from a nursery. I asked the nursery employee if I should stake the tree trunk up to prevent it from bending and breaking. The employee advised against this, saying, “The trunk will be stronger if you have the winds of adversity blowing.”

In the same vein, as the winds of adversity grow stronger against our movement, there has never been a more important time to dig in and be vigilant. We must continue to be the voice for those who can no longer speak.

There will be more elections and more opportunities to drive change. Let’s keep going.

This piece is by Pam Simon, a Fellow with the Everytown Survivor Network. If you have been personally affected by gun violence and would like to share your story with Moms Demand Action, please email facesofcourage@momsdemandaction.org.