Why Gabby Giffords's Gun Safety Group Is Backing Two Republicans

From left, Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey and Illinois Senator Mark Kirk have gained the backing of Gabrielle Giffords’s gun safety PAC in their November races. The rare move from the former Democratic U.S. representative’s PAC comes in a year when her party has a chance to take control of Congress from the Republicans. Tim Shaffer and Frank Polich/Reuters

In a rare move, a leading gun-safety political action committee co-founded by Gabrielle Giffords—the shooting survivor who is a former Democratic U.S. representative from Arizona—has endorsed two Republican senators in their races for re-election.

Less than three months before the November elections, Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS) has thrown its support behind Senators Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mark Kirk of Illinois. They were among four Republican senators who in the wake of the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut—where 20 children and six educators were killed—voted in support of a bill designed to prevent felons, domestic abusers and other individuals who might pose a risk to public safety from obtaining firearms at gun shows and on the internet. The measure quickly failed, but the senators were recognized for breaking with the gun lobby and the beliefs of most Republican elected officials on the partisan issue of gun control.

The endorsements come in a vital election year, with Democrats seen as having a chance to take control of the House and Senate, in addition to possibly retaining the White House. In an op-ed published on CNN's website Monday, Giffords and her husband, astronaut and Navy Captain Mark Kelly—who have acknowledged they are gun owners—said they recognize that the decision to back the GOP senators was challenging, given that their opponents are also championing gun violence prevention. But the couple are vowing to stand by those who have championed smart gun legislation in Congress.

"In a stark reversal of common political practice, candidates are scrambling to communicate their support for gun safety," they said. "Some of those friends are Democrats; some are Republicans. All of them know how urgently we need to do more to keep guns out of dangerous hands."

They added, "Saving lives should be an American priority, not a partisan litmus test."

Most Democrats support stronger gun measures, including universal background checks for all firearms sales. Republicans, meanwhile, typically stand with the National Rifle Association's view that any gun law is restrictive of the Second Amendment. GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, for example, promises to repeal President Barack Obama's executive actions on guns, which he announced in January, during his first day working at the White House, if elected.

Giffords and Kelly became strong advocates for stricter gun laws after she was severely injured in a 2011 shooting outside of a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona, during which six others were killed. The couple, who co-founded ARS after the Sandy Hook shooting, have endorsed Hillary Clinton for president because of her pledge to challenge the gun lobby.

Another leading national gun safety group also has endorsed Toomey: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC. In a new advertisement from the PAC, Erica Smegielski, a vocal advocate for stronger gun laws and the daughter of the Sandy Hook principal killed in the 2012 massacre, praises the Republican for crossing party lines in his efforts to pass a background checks bill. Both Bloomberg and Smegielski spoke in support of Clinton at the Democratic National Convention last month.

In Pennsylvania, site of one of the most competitive Senate races this fall, Toomey is up against Democrat Katie McGinty, who has the support of another gun safety group, CeaseFire Pennsylvania. Giffords and Kelly said they recognize McGinty as a contender who "would be a consistent vote for life-saving gun safety laws in the Senate." Upon endorsing McGinty on Tuesday, CeaseFire Pennsylvania applauded Toomey for his work on the bipartisan measure in 2013 but said he has since "let others assume the mantle of leadership" and instead has focused on other issues. Even though he co-sponsored the bill that failed in the Senate in 2013, Toomey is not viewed as an enemy by all in the pro-gun camp, as he has earned high marks from the NRA and Gun Owners of America.

Meanwhile, ARS's endorsement could help Kirk in Illinois; in Chicago, widespread gun violence occurs nearly daily. In December, Kirk was the only Republican to cross party lines to vote in favor of a gun measure that would have prevented individuals on the terrorist watch list from legally buying guns in the United States. The vote on the legislation, which Senate Republicans easily blocked, took place a day after 14 people were fatally shot in San Bernardino, California, on December 2, 2015. He also recently received an "F"-rating from the NRA, meaning the group sees him as favoring strict gun laws.

Giffords and Kelly don't question that Kirk's opponent, Tammy Duckworth, would also be a gun safety leader if she is elected to the Senate. Duckworth's spokesman, Matt McGrath, encourages voters to keep in mind that Kirk backs Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been an outspoken opponent of gun reform.

Everytown for Gun Safety, another major group in the movement, so far has endorsed only one November candidate: Clinton. But the group, created by Bloomberg in 2014, has vowed to reach millions of voters in the most crucial states ahead of the elections, in its effort to elect what it calls gun-sense champions—from both sides of the aisle. And the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, another leading gun-safety organization, has backed Clinton and is supporting Democrats Kamala Harris (in the California Senate race) and Susannah Randolph and Mike Honda (for House races in Florida and California, respectively).

Since the Sandy Hook massacre, there has been little action in Congress on the guns issue. But local leaders have been more productive in statehouses across the country: A total of 138 new, stronger gun laws have passed in 42 states in that time. "Gun violence prevention has gained a level of prominence unthinkable just a few years ago," Giffords and Kelly said in the op-ed, citing Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy's nearly 15-hour filibuster in June, which was followed by a historic sit-in on the House floor and a night devoted to gun safety at the Democratic Convention.

In a statement posted to Toomey's website, Peter Ambler, executive director of ARS, defended the group's support of the Pennsylvania senator by saying the country "needs more Republican elected officials to stand with the vocal majority of Americans who support common-sense steps that help keep guns out of the wrong hands and prevent gun tragedies."