That day in Tucson, amid a gun tragedy, one of the heroes almost got shot.
It was Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011, and a mentally ill young man who’d gotten his hand on a gun opened fire on my wife, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and her constituents at an event in a Safeway parking lot. He shot my wife in the head at close range, injured 12 others and took the lives of six people. One victim was a 9-year-old girl.
After Gabby’s would-be assassin dropped the full magazine as he sought to reload his gun and continue his rampage, people tackled him, kicked his gun away and subdued him as they waited for law enforcement to arrive and brought an end to the chaos. They were heroes.
The chaos nearly continued, though. Because the man who murdered those innocent people wasn’t the only one there with a loaded, concealed gun.
Joe Zamudio was shopping at a drugstore nearby when he heard the shots. Allowed to carry a concealed weapon under Arizona law, Zamudio recognized the sound of gunfire and rushed to the scene with his gun in his jacket pocket, his hand on his weapon and ready to fire. But then Zamudio — a good guy trying to do the right thing — almost shot another good guy.
As he rounded the corner, he saw a man holding a gun. Zamudio confronted him: “Drop it, drop it!” he yelled.
But that man with a gun was a good guy, too. He was one of the heroes who had wrestled the shooter to the ground. And he was moments away from being shot for the wrong reason.
To his credit, Zamudio held his fire — just barely. As he recounted to reporters later, “It was a matter of seconds. ... I was really lucky. ... I’ve never been in the military or had any professional training. I just reacted.”
The situation that played out in the Safeway parking lot that day shows the potential for tragedy and bloodshed when untrained people carrying loaded guns react to a crisis. Even with the best intentions, an armed person without the extensive firearms training that is required to respond under pressure in a crisis will risk making the situation worse, not better.
But this week, as we approach the seventh anniversary of the tragedy in Tucson and the fifth anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School — and after two of the five deadliest mass shootings in modern history happened in the last two months — Congress is working hard to pass one of the big-ticket items on the National Rifle Association’s wish list, a bill that weakens our gun laws and poses serious threats to public safety.
The House on Wednesday voted to allow people who are permitted to carry concealed weapons in their home state, to carry them into any other state regardless of that state’s law on such guns. That would make it harder for law enforcement to do their job and allow all permit holders, even if they don’t have a single shred of training, to carry loaded, hidden guns on every street in our country.
Right now, each state has the right to determine the extent to which it will recognize the concealed-carry laws of other states. Some states have strong laws, preventing dangerous people like domestic abusers and convicted stalkers from obtaining concealed-carry permits and requiring training and a thorough evaluation as part of the process. In other states, concealed-carry laws have much lower standards. The 12 states with the weakest laws are permitless-carry states that do not even require a permit. That means residents of those states may carry loaded, concealed guns in public spaces without ever having passed a background check.
The bill, which now goes to the Senate, would allow people who have a permit issued by any state — including permitless-carry states — to carry loaded, concealed handguns in any other state that allows concealed carry, even though they might not meet local public safety standards. This would mean an 18-year-old high school student from West Virginia could legally carry a concealed firearm in New York City, where residents must be 21 to even own a handgun.
And what would it mean for law enforcement? Nothing good. The bill would impose a threat of personal litigation on all law enforcement officers by allowing anyone whose ability to carry a concealed gun is mistakenly questioned by law enforcement to personally sue the officer. This bill would also effectively require them to be an expert on nationwide gun laws as they work to determine if it’s legal for someone from out of state to be carrying a gun in whatever state they might be visiting. Just as concerning, it will mean that more law enforcement officers will have to confront more people with guns. And think back to the tragedy in Tucson: When law enforcement officers arrive at a crime scene where multiple people are holding guns, how do they even know who the good guy is?
We need politicians to show courage and listen to the American people, who want stronger laws to make them safer, not giveaways to gun lobbyists that threaten the safety of our communities. And that’s exactly what this irresponsible bill would do.
As members of Congress consider this bill, they have to ask themselves if they want to be remembered as voting to help the Washington gun lobby instead of supporting law enforcement and public safety. And they should know that their constituents are watching their decision closely.
Mark Kelly is a Navy combat veteran, retired NASA astronaut and co-founder with his wife, Gabrielle Giffords, of Giffords, formerly known as Americans for Responsible Solutions.