2 Years After Giffords Shooting, Much Changed?

It's been two years since the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six people and injured former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. To learn what has and hasn't changed since then, host Michel Martin talks with Daniel Hernandez Jr., Giffords' former intern who was credited with saving her life, and Carolyn Lukensmeyer of the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. My thanks to my colleague Celeste Headlee for sitting in while I was away, fighting a miserable cold; which, you can hear, lingers. So I apologize a little bit for my voice, in advance. Later in the program, we will speak with veteran reporter Jay Mathews about what he has seen and learned in his two decades on the education beat.

But first, we want to touch base on a story that made headlines two years ago, but which still haunts us and has resonance for us today. We are talking about the shooting in Tucson, Arizona that left six people dead and 13 people injured, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Sadly, that was not this country's first mass shooting, and it was not the last. Since the shooting in Tucson, there has been the attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, the assault on a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and of course the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Last week, Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, visited victims of the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut. They have also launched Americans for Responsible Solutions. That is a group that is raising money to make a new push for gun restrictions. With all of this, we thought this would be a good time to check back with Daniel Hernandez, Jr.

He is the former intern whose quick thinking and attention to former Congresswoman Giffords is credited with helping to save her life. He has a new book coming out. It's called "They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth." Also joining us Carolyn Lukensmeyer. She is the executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. That's a non-partisan group that was formed in the wake of the Tucson shooting to foster civil conversation. And they're both with us in our Washington D.C. studio.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

DANIEL HERNANDEZ JR.: Thanks for having me.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: Our pleasure.

MARTIN: Daniel, we spoke with you shortly after the shooting, and I still thank you for that, for being willing to speak with us about it, and, of course, even more important, for your quick thinking on that day. I was wondering: Is it hard for you, in the wake of that, to turn on the news and continue to hear about episodes like that?

HERNANDEZ: You know, two years ago, I thought things would change. I thought we would have this huge wakeup call, that the Congress would start acting, because one of its own members had been assaulted and had been injured, and one of the staffers had been killed. And it had been the first time that we'd seen a congressional staffer killed, the first time we'd seen a federal judge killed. But nothing happened.

And it's so sad to me that now, two years later, we sit here and in Colorado today, a young man is going through the same thing that happened with Jared Loughner, where he's starting the pretrial because he shot people in a movie theater. So I thought we would've seen so much more than we've actually seen.

So it's very sad and it's very depressing, I think, to think of what could have been done, and nothing got accomplished in the last session of the Congress.

MARTIN: Do I mind if I ask you how you're doing?

HERNANDEZ: You know, I'm doing as well as can be expected. You know, I think this is something that you don't recover from right away. You don't bounce right back from this. This is something that takes a long time to process. But I've been able to do well. I keep in contact regularly with the other people that were there.

We've become what I like to call a framily(ph). We rely on each other far more than we probably should. But we've become a really core group of people who share, you know, a love of each other, but also a frustration with the way that the Congress has not acted. You know, and now we're hoping that in light of all of the other mass shootings - Aurora, the Sikh temple - even during the Wayne LaPierre press conference, there was a mass shooting in Pennsylvania. There have been so many...

MARTIN: That - he's an executive with the National Rifle Association...

HERNANDEZ: With the National Rifle Association.

MARTIN: ...the NRA, that offered, a couple of days after the shooting, their own perspective on what they think should happen now.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. Their own proposal for what we should do now in the light of Sandy Hook. And I think that's really what prompted me to start becoming more involved. For the first two years, I really stayed out of this issue. I didn't want to start advocating and saying, you know, we should change laws based off of one incident.

But when we think about it, there hasn't been just one incident. Since Columbine and since Tucson, there have been so many mass shootings. And I think having Sandy Hook - as a school board member and as a young elected official - it was a big wakeup call that said - it hits close to home.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that, and I didn't mention that you, in fact, since that - over the last two years, in addition to kind of going on with, you know, your other work as an educational consultant, you've actually been elected to the school board in your community. So congratulations to you for that. I want to hear more about your thinking on this issue.

Carolyn, one of the reasons we turned to you and we wanted to invite you in here is, as I mentioned, the National Institute for Civil Discourse was created in response to the Tucson shooting. Could you just talk a little bit about that? Was it your sense, and the sense of the people who helped to create this group, that part of what was at issue here was a level of public discussion that has become inappropriate and, I don't know - what's the word I want to use here - kind of stimulates intense reactions?

Because some people would just say it's just not true, and really what the issue here is mental illness. Other people would attribute lots of things to what's been going on here. What's your sense?

LUKENSMEYER: Well, I think the idea in founding the institute, Michel, was to recognize we're in one of those cycles in American politics in which the juxtaposition of an increase in violent words being used, an increase in disrespectful behavior and an increase in violent behavior is happening at the same time that we completely have dysfunctional politics.

The big issues facing the country, in addition to gun regulation: the fiscal cliff, the immigration issue, the climate change issue. The American public really knows that our Congress is not facing up to the issues that need to be tackled. So the idea behind the institute was to say we need to look at the cultural issue.

Have people themselves become less civil? Do people behave more disrespectful of people who think differently than they do? So what can we do about how we as Americans treat one another? And then what can we do to create public demand that our members of Congress treat one another civilly and actually get things done?

MARTIN: What have you done in the last two years in support of that objective?

LUKENSMEYER: Well, what will roll out very soon, Michel, in the 113th Congress, is we've created a group full collaborating with both sides of the aisle in the House, where Gabby really did work bipartisan and was highly respected for it. We've created something called The Working Group for a Working Congress. It has six Republican members, six Democrat members. It's chaired by Kay Granger from Texas and Emanuel Cleaver from Missouri.

And in the 113th, that working group is going to select two committees in Congress. You know, in the last session, they didn't even pass a farm bill. They passed a transportation bill, but never appropriated it. These are probably the two bills that have the most impact on Americans all over the country in every cycle.

So the idea is the institute and our partner organizations - eight of them here in D.C., Bipartisan Policy Center, Aspen Institute - we'll work with those two committees to spend two days away from Congress to actually relook at how are we going to treat each other, and how are we going to make sure that our committee actually produces legislation.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with Carolyn Lukensmeyer of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. Also with us, Daniel Hernandez, Jr., former intern for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. We're speaking two years after the shooting in Tucson, Arizona.

We're talking about what's changed since then, both for the country and for some of the people involved. Daniel Hernandez, we were speaking earlier that since the shooting, you've gotten yourself elected to the school board there in your home area.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: You said you've just started thinking a lot about gun control, which is an issue that Gabrielle Giffords has not talked a lot about. Obviously, she's been very focused on her own recovery in these last couple years. Do you mind - to the degree that you feel comfortable - telling us: What do you think should happen? What would you have liked to have happened in the two years since?

HERNANDEZ: You know, there are so many things that can be addressed that have not been taken up in this last Congress. You know, one of the things that I think is a good point about the National Institute on Civil Discourse is our rhetoric has become so fiery, and it has become more about destroying the other side than working to create good policy.

So we're focused on destructive instead of constructive discourse in the Congress, which has meant things like mental health. Arizona is a state where we have cut off Medicaid for childless adults, some of whom are mentally ill, so they are going into the prison system because there's no other recourses for them. There's no other funding for them to get any treatment.

There are things that we needed to have looked at that we haven't in the last two years. I think one of the most important ones is universalizing background checks. You know, we've created this odd system where, if you do it through a private transaction, in some states, there's no requirement for you to go through a background check.

MARTIN: You mean, if you buy a gun through a private...

HERNANDEZ: If you buy a firearm.

MARTIN: ...transaction, as opposed to a free - a store?

HERNANDEZ: As a - so, if a licensed dealer is selling it, they have to have the person pass a background check, but if you buy it at a gun show or through another private sale, there isn't always a requirement for you to go through a background check. So we've created this system where you have people who get to choose. If I'm going through airport security, there's not a line for security and not another line for security. You have to go through security, so it doesn't make any sense to not look at that seriously when 70 percent of the members polled of the NRA by Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, said we want to universalize gun checks.

MARTIN: How do you feel now about - what's your - going into the next, sort of, two years of your life, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic that the things you care about are going to be addressed?

HERNANDEZ: You know, I have so many issues that I care about, education being one of my top issues, but this issue of gun safety is a top priority for me and I think it's hard not to be optimistic, considering how little was done in the last Congress, so we really have nowhere to go but up. And having this new initiative by the institute, I think, is really promising and, you know, even in my own role, I'm working with people who are members of Congress who are Republicans saying, enough is enough. We need to start acting on things like assault weapons ban and banning high capacity magazines.

MARTIN: Carolyn, obviously, this is a very rich topic and we're not going to resolve all of this here, but what would you say to people who say the issue is not civility. The issue is philosophy and ideology. People just don't agree about these issues and they have a right not to agree about these issues. This is not a matter of people's interpersonal relationships. It's a matter of strong philosophical differences, which is what people are allowed to have. What would you say about that?

LUKENSMEYER: I think it's absolutely true that the core issue here is strong philosophical differences, even in the interpretation of the Constitution. However, throughout American history, we've faced these philosophical differences before and one of the things that is deep in our character is to commit to understanding both sides of the philosophy sufficiently that we can actually fashion a policy that's practical, common sense and leave space for both values perspectives.

Another reason to be very optimistic right now is Vice President Biden's intergovernmental taskforce, which will be putting forward some recommendations, which the public can get engaged in.

MARTIN: Well, hopefully, we'll talk again about that and, hopefully, we'll continue to speak with both of you, and I thank you both so much for joining us today. That was Carolyn Lukensmeyer. She is the executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. Also with us, Daniel Hernandez, Jr. He's the former congressional intern who attended to Congresswoman Giffords in the wake of that terrible shooting two years ago. He has a forthcoming book. It's called "They Call Me A Hero: A Memoir of My Youth." It comes out in February. Hopefully, we'll talk with you then about the book.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

LUKENSMEYER: Thank you.

HERNANDEZ: Thank you so much.

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MARTIN: Coming up, a lot of people see the education beat as a place for ambitious newcomers to start and quickly depart for sexier journalistic waters. Not so, columnist Jay Mathews. He's been on the beat for more than two decades watching education fads come and go, problems persist and new national interest in his subject. He'll sit down with us to talk about what he's learned in two decades on the education beat. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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