Giffords completes skydive on shooting anniversary

Associated Press
Former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is pictured with Savannah Guthrie of NBC's TODAY show
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Former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (L) is pictured with Savannah Guthrie of NBC's TODAY show in this handout photo from Gifford's skydive released by NBC's TODAY show on January 8, 2014. Guthrie joined Giffords as she skydived for a report and interview to air exclusively on NBC's TODAY. Giffords, who is still recovering from a shooting rampage that left the Arizona Democrat badly wounded with a gunshot to the head, went skydiving on Wednesday to mark the third anniversary of the attack, according to an NBC journalist who accompanied her. REUTERS/NBC's TODAY show/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS PROFILE MEDIA) ATTENTION EDITORS - NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. MANDATORY CREDIT

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Three years after being shot in the head at a political gathering, Gabrielle Giffords is still learning how to walk and talk again but that didn't stop her from jumping out of a plane in a tandem skydive to commemorate the attack and how far she's come.

Across the city of Tucson on Wednesday, others gathered for bell-ringing and flag-raising ceremonies to remember the six killed and 13 injured, including Giffords, on Jan. 8, 2011, as the former Arizona congresswoman met with constituents outside a grocery store.

Giffords waved and blew kisses to a crowd at a skydiving site south of Phoenix after successfully landing on a grass lawn without injury. Onlookers cheered and applauded.

"Gabby landed beautifully. Happy she's safe. So proud of her bravery," Giffords' husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, wrote on his Twitter account after the tandem jump with his wife strapped to a professional skydiver.

"She was the least nervous person on the plane," said Jimmy Hatch, a former Navy SEAL who accompanied Giffords along with others. "They did a little moment of silence at the drop zone ... The emotion was really heavy. Then she smiled and said, 'Let's go.'"

Vice President Joe Biden's office said he called Giffords on Wednesday to wish her good luck.

"Gabby's courage & determination has been absolutely inspirational," Biden wrote on his office's Twitter account.

Giffords' jump was broadcast Thursday on NBC's "Today" show.

Broadcast video showed the Giffords and other jumpers step out the back of a twin-engine plane and then join hands midair during their descent under a blue sky.

In Tucson, about 100 residents attended a ceremony outside the University of Arizona Medical Center, where the injured were treated. A bell was rung once for each victim as the Rev. Joe Fitzgerald spoke to the crowd.

"Today, we gather to remember the tragic day three years ago when our community was deeply wounded," he said.

Other ceremonies and moments of silence took place across the city.

"I think the commemorations are, in large part, recognition of our community's collective care and compassion and grit to go on," Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said.

Pam Simon, 66, who was a Giffords aide at the time of the attack and suffered a gunshot wound to the chest, reflected on the shooting with crisp memories, but also a positive outlook.

"When we stop on an anniversary to really reflect, sometimes it opens the wounds a little bit," she said. "But it's also gratifying in a way to see the community come out again and remember."

Giffords, meanwhile, has become a leader of Americans for Responsible Solutions, a national organization she founded with her husband to rival the powerful pro-gun lobby.

The group has struggled to bring about major change in its first year of existence, but the couple is confident they've laid the groundwork for success in future election cycles.

"The legacy of any day where there's a mass shooting and loss of life is, I think, a chance to reflect on who these people were and what they did, particularly the people who died," Kelly said in an interview with The Associated Press on the eve of the anniversary. "But it's also a chance to look forward and see how we can make changes and reduce the numbers of instances like this that we have."

Giffords and Kelly formed their organization just weeks after the massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Since then, Congress has done nothing to tighten the nation's gun laws. Some states, including Colorado and Delaware, pushed ahead with their own gun-control measures, while others like Arizona, Giffords' home state, moved in the opposite direction, passing a law that requires municipalities to sell weapons surrendered at buyback programs instead of destroying them.

Kelly said his group raised more than $11 million between January 2013 and July 2013.

"So we're going to have the resources to be effective in the next election cycle in 2014," he said.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times on Wednesday, Giffords wrote about her struggles to recover, calling it "gritty, painful, frustrating work."

"I had planned to spend my 40s continuing my public service and starting a family," she wrote. "Instead, I've spent the past three years learning how to talk again, how to walk again."

Jared Lee Loughner was sentenced in November 2012 to seven consecutive life sentences, plus 140 years, after he pleaded guilty to 19 federal charges in the shooting.

Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, resigned from Congress.

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Tang reported from Phoenix.

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