WASHINGTON – Pam Simon said she remembers only part of what happened that January day in the parking lot of a Tucson supermarket.
“A person appeared … and shots began to be fired,” Simon said. “You kind of go into another reality.”
She was one of the first to be hit when a gunman opened fire at a “Congress in Your Corner” event held by then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, for whom Simon was working as a staffer. Six people were killed and she and Giffords were among 13 wounded.
Until that day, Simon, a one-time middle school teacher in Tucson, never thought gun violence was an important issue. Until that day, she said, gun violence was always something that happened to other people.
Since that day, Simon has become an activist with organizations across the country that work to prevent gun violence.
Her efforts brought her to Washington this week, where she was acknowledged Thursday as a White House “Champion of Change” for her work on gun control.
“I’m really happy that she was honored,” said Lizzie Ulmer of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, one of the many groups Simon has worked with. “She’s a role model for other survivors.”
Simon said she considers the White House honor as recognition not just for her but for all the survivors of the Tucson shooting.
Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, remembers the Tucson shooting as a “horrifying day … a day that changed all of our lives.” He was on Giffords’ staff and was at the event where he was among the wounded.
“We’ve become close, like family,” said Barber, who succeeded Giffords in office. “Pam … has been a major part in leading the survivor group.”
Simon remembers ducking when the shooting began that day. A bullet went through her hand, into her chest, passed over her heart and lodged in her hip. After she fell, she couldn’t see what was happening but heard people rushing to help the victims.
Since then, she has been active with Moms Demand Action and Arizonans for Gun Safety, as well as the mayors’ group. During the last presidential election, she helped Mayors Against Illegal Guns “demand a plan” from the candidates for reducing gun violence.
She accused gun-rights groups of scaring people into thinking that any gun-control measure means they are losing their rights.
That drew a sharp rebuke from Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, who called gun control “a criminal’s friend.”
“I believe she’s losing the argument, or else this would be a more dangerous country to live in,” said Pratt of Simon’s efforts. He said the country is safer with more guns, not fewer.
But Simon said the numbers argue otherwise. In addition to the high-profile mass shootings – Tucson, Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook and this week’s Fort Hood attack – she said that gun violence claims 33 people every day in the U.S.
Simon said she is now focusing her efforts on improving mental health resources and bringing background checks on potential gun owners to law in every state.
She said 16 states and Washington, D.C., now require background checks on anyone purchasing a gun, what she called a “small step” to a safer country.
She praised President Barack Obama for taking up the gun-control fight but said there is still much to be done – and vowed to keep working, despite relatively little progress since she was shot.
Even though she said there have been some setbacks on gun-control legislation, “we’ve made great headway.”
“This is going to be one of those issues that is not going to be solved overnight,” said Simon, who thinks that in such long battles, it is important “that we celebrate the small steps.”
Barber, who called the shooting a unifying experience for those involved, said he wanted to commend Simon for “her courage and her energy” in the years since that day.
“I’m very proud of her … she didn’t let that day define her,” he said.