Tim Steller: Former astronaut Kelly assumes new role: a political voice for gun control

2013-03-10T00:00:00Z 2013-03-11T07:11:04Z Tim Steller: Former astronaut Kelly assumes new role: a political voice for gun controlTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 10, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Dozens of reporters and onlookers in Tucson witnessed a key transition last week, one that may affect us all for years to come.

Wednesday morning, we packed the parking lot at West Ina and North Oracle roads where Gabrielle Giffords was shot in January 2011, and we saw her husband, Mark Kelly, in a new role - political activist.

Advocating background checks for all gun purchases, Kelly was a forceful speaker who took charge of the event, giving opening remarks, introducing each speaker, taking questions and closing the session.

Onlookers cheered him and Giffords heartily. Numerous cameras jostled for position.

"It is clear that this legislation could do a very common-sense thing, to make it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to have access to a firearm," he told the crowd.

This wasn't the neutral astronaut who stayed out of political fray, nor the husband who stayed in the background while his wife worked in Congress. He was even different from the celebrity-without-portfolio who represented Giffords and their family in the national media for two years after the shooting.

He had a political point to make, a place he was going and a desire to take us there.

Whether there's any political destination beyond the gun-violence debate, we simply don't know yet, but it's hard to imagine Kelly retiring from public life. And since the couple moved to Tucson in August, his path in public life could well involve us.

GOP seems sure he'll run

Republicans seem more convinced than Democrats that Kelly will run for office someday, perhaps because they fear it happening, while Democrats fear it won't.

"I'd be willing to lay dollars for doughnuts that we're looking at the first steps of a Mark Kelly run for office," Republican campaign consultant Sam Stone told me Friday. Stone was communications director in Martha McSally's first run for Congress, the special primary election necessitated by Giffords' resignation in January 2012.

"They say all politics is personal. And I think this is for him a confluence of platforms. It's deeply emotional, but it also presents an opportunity for him," Stone said.

Even if he makes no future run, Kelly has staked out a new area of activity where he could influence all Americans.

Motivated by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, he and Giffords announced the formation of Americans for Responsible Solutions, a super PAC intended to balance the National Rifle Association's influence on the gun debate. They announced it on Jan. 8, the second anniversary of the attack on Giffords and her constituents.

On Jan. 30, Kelly testified before the U.S. Senate's Judiciary Committee, arguing in favor of requiring background checks for all gun sales, including private ones. He also said we should remove restrictions on spending federal money on research of gun violence, and he asked for a debate on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Kelly's effect on the gun debate "has been extraordinarily significant," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

"He brings a tremendous mixture of emotion and pragmatism and credibility to it," Gross said. "There are a lot of people who have high-profile stories as victims. There are few who can express themselves as well as Mark does."

Kelly also testified at a hearing in Colorado's Legislature on Monday, supporting a bill that would require background checks for private gun sales there.

A public man already

As an astronaut, Kelly's career made him a public person, teaching him to do interviews and make appearances, said Pia Carusone, the former chief of staff for Giffords who now works with Kelly for the new super PAC. But the people he spoke to were more likely to be schoolchildren and science writers than the sort who came calling after Giffords was shot.

Interview requests poured in - we at the Star made many that amounted to a tiny fraction - and Kelly picked his venues.

"We had been approached by everyone. My email and voice mail was full. Offers of all sorts were coming in," Carusone said.

For the couple's first big interview, Kelly chose ABC's Diane Sawyer. That national TV special aired in November 2011, coinciding with the release of the book Kelly had written, with help from his recovering wife, "Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope."

The impression of Kelly that emerged was of a devoted husband. Combine that with Kelly's earlier career as an astronaut, and it was a public image to marvel at.

"Whether or not Mark Kelly has any future desires to get into political office, who knows?" said Arizona State University marketing professor Mike Denning, when I asked him about Kelly. "But from a marketer's standpoint, I see that he is building a brand for both he and Gabby."

"It's a natural thing to have happen," added Denning, of the W.P. Carey School of Business. "He's using that notoriety to be able to push that message out."

Right now, that brand is focused on the issue of gun violence. Later, as Denning said, who knows?

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427 On Twitter @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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