Jessica Mark and Gabby sitting in Gabbys car

Gabby Giffords: A woman without barriers

On January 8, 2011, I left the gym in Casas Adobes, Arizona to head home. It felt like every other visit to the gym–60 minutes of exercising with a trainer, a quick rest, and off I went. But this time was different. 

It was just a few blocks into my drive home that traffic came to a complete halt on Oracle Road. People were stopping their cars to get out and see what was happening, but there wasn’t anything to see from my angle, so I detoured my way home. 

After arriving home, I turned on the news, and learned the news that U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot during a constituent meeting held in the Safeway parking lot–just across the street from where I stood less than an hour before.

I’ve always admired Gabby Giffords. In 2002–while in her early 30s–she was elected into Congress, at that time being the youngest woman elected into the Arizona Senate. I was in my early 20s and I remember being impressed by her. Here she was, a young female leader on a mission, and in my very own city. So when I had the opportunity to meet Gabby and her husband, Mark Kelly three years ago, I was beyond thrilled. 

Within moments of meeting her, I discovered that there’s so much more to her than being the victim of a tragic assassination attempt–just like there’s so much more to me than being a woman without arms. Being around her gave me pure joy. She is a genuinely happy person and her positive attitude rubs off on everyone around her. 

Not long after meeting Gabby and Mark, Right Footed had its initial screening in Tucson. I thought it would be a great opportunity to see them again and share a bit about myself, so I invited them and they accepted.

When Gabby and Mark walked into the theater, a room of about 100 people erupted in applause. Gabby is seen as a hero around the country, but this is especially the case in the Tucson community. Here, she’s our neighbor. It never ceases to amaze me how others react when she walks into a room--there are people who know them or want to come up to them to shake their hand. 

I was thrilled to have Gabby and Mark support me at the showing. And coincidentally, Gabby and the film director Nick Spark went to high school together, so it was a nice reunion for them as well. 


From left to right: Gabby Giffords, Jessica Cox (me!), Mark Kelly, and Right Footed film director, Nick Spark.

Last Wednesday, our paths crossed again at Bentley, a local coffee shop in central Tucson that Gabby and Mark frequently visit. 

Gabby and I have a lot of things in common. We have similar determination. In 2014, Gabby and I both completed the El Tour de Tucson, a charity bike tour on the same style bike. But one thing we don’t have in common: I consider myself to be a woman with a disability, whereas, Gabby does not. In fact, Gabby is adamant that she doesn’t have a disability and says she’s the same person she was before the incident. Even her political views are unchanged.

And speaking of political views, we chatted a bit about politics–because there seems to be a lot to talk about in politics lately. Gabby reminded me of her top priorities in Congress: border security, renewable energy, and the economy. I asked her and Mark what they thought about Trump’s executive order on immigration. She responded with a smile and three words: “Let them in!”

In a recent email she and Mark wrote seeking donations to her nonprofit, Americans for Responsible Solutions, Mark explains that toddlers with guns are more dangerous than terrorists. Mark explained that he doesn’t think the answer is to let every refugee in, but as a country and the leader of the free world, we need to uphold our responsibility in taking care of people who are struggling. 

“Refugees that are coming from these countries including Syria don't commit crimes at higher rates than anybody else in the country,” Mark adds. “In fact, they commit crimes at lower rates, and so do immigrants. There isn't a threat of widespread terrorism from letting people reside here and I know that if Gabby was in Congress, she would be fighting for them.”

Although Gabby is no longer in Congress, that doesn’t keep her from fighting for gun control, alongside Mark. In fact, most of their work is done together. Mark told me that the only major change since Gabby’s accident is that they both live in Tucson and work on the same things. They’re no longer split between Capitol Hill and outer space–and that statement doesn’t just roll off the tongue. 

If you don’t know much about Mark, know this: he and I share a love for flying, but he’s gone just a bit further than I have. Mark has been to space four times. I asked when NASA was going to send someone with a disability to space. He told me about a guy without legs who applied to be an astronaut. “He was trying to make the case that in zero-gravity, you don’t walk, so you don’t need legs,” Mark says. “But he was still up against the physical tests, which even the healthiest people struggle to pass.” I’m keeping my toes crossed for him.

In talking about his space missions, he explains, “you get that perspective of protecting this place we live on….our atmosphere kind of looks like a contact lens on an eyeball...” So yes, we got to talking about climate change, too. Mark notes, “you have leaders of the U.S. Senate who don't know the difference between climate and weather… and who believe that humans have had no effect on the climate. It’s dangerous.” 

Once our mugs were cold, I spotted Gabby’s convertible Chevrolet Corvair. It’s a red convertible with leader seats with a big old red steering wheel–it’s a dream. Gabby’s taste in cars is reflective in her personality and spirit of adventure–another thing I love about her. Mark said he wanted to see how I drive, so I jumped in the front seat and showed them! 

I was thrilled on many levels. I’ve never had the opportunity to sit in a classic convertible, but it was extra special because it belongs to Gabby, a woman I greatly admire. Gabby is a strong woman, pushing for change. It’s obvious when you meet her, that she is a person who is helping make the world a better place.   

I was so touched by our afternoon chat. Every time I’m around Gabby and Mark, I find it humbling. A tragic experience like the one Gabby experienced in 2011 could have easily turned both of them into bitter and angry people. Instead, it’s had the opposite affect.

The experience propelled them to a national platform to enact common sense gun control laws that will save lives. I’m so proud of the work they’re doing and I’m so proud to call them my friends.

Jessica Cox