Acclaimed memoirist Binyavanga Wainaina talks about his writing, Africa today and his new life as an openly gay man.
As the first anniversary of the Newtown school shooting approaches, we check in with former astronaut Mark Kelly, whose wife, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was almost killed in a mass shooting nearly three years ago in Tucson, Arizona.
Kelly and Giffords lobby for reduced gun violence and responsible gun ownership through their non-profit Americans for Responsible Solutions. They join some Newtown families in setting aside a push for tougher gun buyer background checks, because it failed in Congress this year, along with a ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons and large ammunition clips.
Kelly is now pushing for better mental health programs and more reporting of the mentally ill to the federal background check system. He tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson that his group is raising money to “bring some balance” to debate over gun control.
On the lack of action on gun control
“We’re coming up on a year since we had 20 first graders and six educators murdered in their classrooms, and, you know, the response at the national level from Congress, so far, has been to do pretty much nothing. And that’s a problem. But fortunately around statehouses, there has been some action on updating and improving gun violence laws. So we are making some progress there, and we continue to work with our representatives in Washington, D.C., and over time, we are hopeful that we can get something done.”
On how background checks alone won’t stop mass shootings
“There’s no one solution for any single problem, right? This is a complicated issue. In some cases, I would say that expanding background checks will prevent somebody from getting a gun and will prevent them from committing some heinous crime. Since 1999, two million people — two million — have been stopped from buying a gun at a federally licensed firearm dealer because they did not pass a background check. Now why do we give those people the opportunity to go to a gun show and go to the internet or private sale to buy a firearm? I’m a responsible gun owner — I own a number of firearms — and every time I’ve done a background check before buying the gun, and it’s a simple process. So you’re right, in the case of Adam Lanza, mental health was certainly an issue there. And Congress should be acting on that as well.”
On how he stays energized despite the lack of momentum
“When you consider coming from my background, which is a technical background, either as a fighter pilot or as an astronaut, when there’s a problem, we look at the data and we figure out a solution and we implement it. Not so easy with Washington, D.C., and politics. It gets a little more complicated, so it is frustrating. But when Gabby and I decided to take this issue on and form our organization, we knew that this was going to be, as she says, ‘a long, hard haul.’ She is well aware of how Washington works and so am I, so we knew that this was going to be a marathon and not a sprint.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE & NOW.
As we approach Saturday, which marks a year since Newtown, we're having a number of conversations about gun control and mental health. And we're pleased to be joined now by someone who has been working to pass legislation on both issues, ever since his wife was shot in 2011
Mark Kelly is a former astronaut who is married to former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Together they founded the group Americans for Responsible Solutions, which is pushing to reduce gun violence. Mark Kelly, welcome to HERE & NOW.
MARK KELLY: Great to be here.
HOBSON: Well, it's great to have you. And I wanted to start, you know, here we are three years after the shooting that injured your wife, Gabrielle Giffords. We are about a year after the Newtown tragedy. There's basically no action on gun control, and I wonder how you feel about that, first off.
KELLY: Yeah, not much. Right? I mean, we're coming up on a year since we had 20 first-graders and six educators murdered in their classrooms, and, you know, the response at the national level from Congress, so far, has been to do pretty much nothing. And, you know, that's a problem. But fortunately around statehouses, there has been some action on, you know, updating and improving gun violence laws. And, you know, so we're making some progress there. And we continue to work, you know, with our representatives in Washington, D.C. And over time, you know, we are hopeful that we can get something done.
HOBSON: Well, there was one thing that happened. It happened this week and this was the extension of the ban on plastic guns, although some didn't think that it went far enough, because now you can re-create these things using 3-D printers. These are guys that would be able to get through a metal detector. Are you happy that that passed?
KELLY: Well, you know, it was, you know, an extension of existing law. So it was, you know, something that's been in place - yeah, that's a good thing. But you're right and, you know, their new technologies out there like 3-D printers that can, you know, print weapons. Currently that's not very well regulated, so that needs to be considered by Congress and updated as well.
HOBSON: What would you say that you have accomplished in your fight over these last few years on any of these issues? And I know that you're not just focused on gun control. And you are a Second Amendment supporter. You're also focused on trying to deal with mental health issues.
KELLY: Yeah, so we've, you know, raise considerable resources to communicate. We've, you know, spent time in state capitals. You know, me personally testifying in front a number of Senate Judiciary committees in statehouses around the country. So we've been really helpful on the state level. We participated, you know, in the Virginia election for the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
So we've been busy building organization and raising the money that is going to be necessary to try to bring some balance to this issue in - particularly in Washington, D.C.
HOBSON: What do you mean by bring some balance to the issue?
KELLY: Well, for 30 years, you know, the gun lobby, particularly the NRA, has done a, you know, you've got to give them a lot of credit. They've done a fabulous job of building a lot of influence with our elected officials in Washington. They've done a very good job at it, and that's why it's very difficult to get some of this legislation passed, including legislation like expanding background checks to gun shows and the Internet that sees support from 92 percent of Americans. And even 74 percent of NRA members thinks is a good idea that you get a background check before buying a gun.
But it can pass Congress, and that's because the NRA in particular have done a great job supporting certain members and opposing others. And I give them a lot of say in what happens on this issue.
HOBSON: Well, it sounds like what you're saying it's easier for you to have influence in state capitals than Washington. Is that the way forward for gun control advocates, to forget about trying to pass federal legislation and simply move to the states?
KELLY: You know, you think like anything, it can be a multipronged approach. I may we continue to focus our efforts in Washington. But we also, you know, recognize that in some regard, in some states, it's easier to get this done. And, you know, we're not going to sit by after what happened in Newtown, and before that Aurora and so many other places, and the daily gun violence we have is just unacceptable.
You know, in 2013, the United States of America should not rank so poorly on a statistic such as gun violence. We can do a lot better than that.
HOBSON: Well, and I'm sure you've heard many on the other side of this issue saying that the Navy Yard shooter wouldn't have been stopped with background checks; Adam Lanza, the shooter in Newtown, wouldn't have been stopped with background checks. What do you say to that argument?
KELLY: Well, there is no one solution for any, you know, single problem, right? This is a complicated issue. You know, in some cases, I would say that expanding background checks will prevent somebody from getting a gun and will prevent them from, you know, committing some heinous crime.
Since 1999, two million people, two million have been stopped from buying a gun at a federally licensed firearm dealer because they did not pass a background check. Now why do we give those people the opportunity to go to a gun show and go to, you know, the Internet or private sale to buy a firearm?
I'm a responsible gun owner, you know, I own, you know, a number of firearms and every time I've done, you know, a background check before buying the gun, and it's a simple process. So you're right. You know, in the case of Adam Lanza, you know, mental health was certainly an issue there. And Congress should be acting on that as well.
HOBSON: We are speaking with former astronaut Mark Kelly. And you're listening to HERE & NOW.
And, Mark Kelly, when was the last time you shot one of your guns?
KELLY: The last time was probably I think over the summer, about six months ago.
HOBSON: And - I don't know how I'm going as this question. Is it weird at all to shoot a gun, given your own experience with the consequences of it?
KELLY: No, not really. Actually, not at all. It's not even weird for my wife, Gabby, to shoot a gun; something she did before she was shot herself. You know, she actually doesn't remember being shot. She was the first one of 18 people that were shot on that day in Arizona. And it's something that she enjoyed, you know, to some extent before she was injured. And she still does now occasionally.
HOBSON: She still shoots guns.
KELLY: Well, yeah, occasionally. I mean not that - you know, she shot - we were on a trip and we were in Nevada over the summer. We went to arrange and she shot with her left hand.
HOBSON: Hmm. How is she doing? A lot of people, of course, got to know her so well before and after. I remember I met her right when she arrived in Washington as a new member of Congress. But many people, of course, got to know her after the shooting on television. How is she doing now?
KELLY: Yeah, she's doing really well. I mean she's working really hard and continues to work very hard on her recovery. She's in a great mood. You know, this issue is very important to her and she's improving all the time. I mean it's not, you know, rapid, you know, increase in, you know, whatever she happens to be working on. But she, you know, she takes her PT and OT and speech therapy all very seriously. She's doing great, thanks. Thanks for asking.
HOBSON: I finally want to ask you how you stay energized about this issue. It must be frustrating to see the lack of action on an issue that you care so much about.
KELLY: Yeah, when you consider coming from my background, you know, which is a technical background as either a fighter pilot or as an astronaut, when there's a problem, you know, we look at the data and we figure out a solution and we implement it. Not so easy with Washington, D.C., and politics. You know, it gets a little more complicated. So it is frustrating.
But when Gabby and I decided to take this issue on and form our organization, we knew that this was going to be, you know, as she says, a long, hard haul. You know, she's well aware of how Washington works and so am I. So we knew that this was going to be a marathon and not a sprint.
HOBSON: That's former astronaut Mark Kelly, co-founder, along with his wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, of the gun safety lobby group Americans for Responsible Solutions.
Mark Kelly, thank you so much for coming in.
KELLY: Great to be on your show, thank you.
HOBSON: And let us know your thoughts at hereandnow.org. This is HERE & NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.