PHOENIX — In the three years since she was severely injured in a mass shooting at a political event, Gabrielle Giffords has made an impressive recovery, learned to walk again and founded a national political organization. On Wednesday, while others gathered for bell-ringing and flag-raising ceremonies, she marked the anniversary by skydiving.
The former Arizona congresswoman waved and blew kisses to a crowd at a skydiving site between Phoenix and Tucson after landing without injury. She described the jump as a wonderful experience.
Giffords’ husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, posted a picture of her landing on his Twitter account.
“Happy she’s safe. So proud of her bravery,” he wrote.
Jimmy Hatch, a former Navy SEAL who accompanied Giffords, said she was the least nervous person on the plane.
Hatch said the group held hands and formed a circle shortly after exiting the aircraft and then made a line with Giffords in the middle. The entire skydive lasted about a minute, he said.
He called Giffords a “rock star” for making the jump on such an emotional day.
“It’s pretty incredible,” he said. “They did a little moment of silence at the drop zone. The emotion was really heavy. … She’s a testimony to making the best of what you have.”
Vice-President Joe Biden called Giffords to wish her good luck on her jump, according to Biden’s office.
The 2011 mass shooting in Tucson left six people dead and injured 13 others, including Giffords.
About 100 residents of the city attended a ceremony on Wednesday outside the University of Arizona Medical Center, where the injured were treated.
A bell was rung once for each of the six people killed and the 12 wounded. A pastor also read a prayer and then a moment of silence followed at the event, one of several planned in the city.
“The wounds are still there. Time helps, but it doesn’t heal all the wounds,” Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said. “I think the commemorations are, in large part, recognition of our community’s collective care and compassion and grit to go on.”
A post on her Facebook page says Giffords has regained movement in her right arm but still struggles to speak and walk.
She 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 struggled to bring about any major changes at the federal and state level in its first year, but the couple is confident they 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.”
Skydiving experts say it’s relatively safe for someone with Giffords’ physical struggles to make a jump. Nancy Koreen, a spokeswoman for the United States Parachute Association said almost anyone — depending on the extent of their disability or injuries — can do a tandem or solo jump.
Officials have announced plans for a permanent shooting memorial expected to be located downtown at the Old Pima County Courthouse and in an adjacent park. The sites would display some of the thousands of items, including letters, candles and flags that were placed in makeshift memorials after the shooting.
Some of the items were on display Wednesday at libraries in Tucson.
“Like any community that experiences a tragedy, the citizens want to be connected to it in some way to show their appreciation and understanding and sympathy,” said Stephen Brigham, president of the January 8 Memorial Foundation.
Giffords and Kelly formed their organization just weeks after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Since then, Congress has done nothing to tighten any of the nation’s gun laws. Some states, including Colorado and Delaware, pushed ahead with their own gun-control measures, while others moved in the opposite direction. Arizona passed a law that requires municipalities to sell weapons surrendered at buyback programs instead of destroying them.
Kelly said his group has signed up more than a half-million people, and between January 2013 and July 2013, they raised more than $11 million.
“So we’re going to have the resources to be effective in the next election cycle in 2014,” he said.
Kelly is a gun owner and supporter of the Second Amendment who wishes he could work with organizations like the National Rifle Association to preserve gun rights while keeping weapons out of the hands of dangerous criminals and the mentally unstable.
In an opinion piece for The New York Times on Wednesday, Giffords wrote about her struggles to recover, calling it “gritty, painful, frustrating work, every day.”
“I had planned to spend my 40s continuing my public service and starting a family. I thought that by fighting for the people I cared about and loving those close to me, I could leave the world a better place. And that would be enough,” 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.