Gabby Giffords, Mark Kelly Go On Gun Rights Tour

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A firing range might seem like an unlikely venue to launch a campaign for tougher gun laws. Guest host Linda Wertheimer speaks with astronaut Mark Kelly, who's on tour with his wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, to promote background checks for gun purchasers.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. A firing range might seem an unlikely venue to launch a campaign for tougher gun laws. But that is where former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords started a new round of lobbying for expanded background checks on people who want to buy guns. Giffords, who was shot and nearly killed in January 2011, took a turn firing a pistol, which then flashed around the world, as did her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly. Mark Kelly joins us now from Manchester, New Hampshire to talk about the couple's Rights and Responsibilities Tour. And welcome.

MARK KELLY: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So, why did you start at a firing range?

KELLY: Well, a firing range is where you find gun owners, and usually very responsible gun owners. And it was important for Gabby and I to reach out to like-minded folks like ourselves. I mean, we're both gun owners and we do it responsibly and try to get their opinions on how this affects them.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you have been to Nevada and to Alaska and today we're speaking to you in New Hampshire. These are states whose senators voted against expanded background checks when the people in their state seem to approve of the idea of background checks. What is your message to those senators?

KELLY: You know, Gabby and I understand the states of Arizona and Texas and their connection to firearms very well. It's important for us to understand other places, places like Nevada and Alaska, Ohio, North Dakota, here in New Hampshire - Maine also. And we'll go to North Carolina as well. So, it's not so much of sending a message to certain members of the Congress but it's really about reaching out to their constituents, so the next time I speak to those members you have a better sense of what their issues are and the things that they have to deal with.

WERTHEIMER: So, what are you hearing from the like-minded people that you meet, people who like to hunt and shoot and own guns? Are you finding the kind of support you'd hope to find?

KELLY: Yes. You know, in every state we've visited we've found support for expanded background checks, I mean, upwards of, like, for instance here in New Hampshire it's about 89 percent. In North Dakota that has a very high rate of gun ownership and hunting, it's even in the mid-70s. But we do occasionally find some folks that don't, you know, don't agree with our position on these issues. I actually try to seek those people out and spend more time with them to see if we can find some, you know, common ground. I mean, because that's the only way ultimately we're going to get this done.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now the NRA and other strong and organized opponents of curbs on gun ownership have long talked about the camel's nose. They assert that any change, even something that sounds reasonable to a lot of people, must be opposed because anything that should pass would open the door to something more restrictive.

KELLY: Well, I haven't heard the camel's nose anecdote but they often talk about the slippery slope. And the leadership of the NRA, you know, uses those words a lot. You know, I have not seen the slope in Washington to be very slippery. You know, it's almost impossible to get anything done. If anything, the slope is made of Velcro, which is something I know a lot about from being in space.

WERTHEIMER: The Manchin-Toomey Bill concentrates on background checks and was thought by many to have a reasonable chance of getting stronger support than in fact it did get. One of the things I wondered about was am I correct that the young man who shot your wife had in fact passed a background check?

KELLY: Yeah, that's correct. He did pass a background check. He bought the nine-millimeter Glock from a sporting goods store. But there was enough information about him. The U.S. Army knew he was a drug user. His community college had expelled him for mental illness. And instead of him getting help, he was kind of left to his own devices. And he passed the background check. But if the information about his mental illness and drug use was in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and Arizona would share those records with the federal government, then he wouldn't have passed. The problem, though, is I imagine that he was probably smart enough to know that he could go to a gun show and buy the gun anyway, or go to the Internet. So, that's why it's so critical that we close the gun show and Internet and private sales loophole to make sure that criminals and the dangerously mentally ill - it would not only prevent them from getting a gun, but let's make it a lot harder. If we do that, we'll save lives.

WERTHEIMER: Mark Kelly with his wife, Gabrielle Giffords, has been campaigning across the country on background checks for gun owners. Their organization is called Americans for Responsible Solutions. Commander Kelly, thank you very much.

KELLY: Thank you, Linda. Thanks for having me on.

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