Intern, surgeon who helped save Gabby Giffords lead gun law push in Arizona Legislature

Dustin Gardiner
The Republic | azcentral.com
Reps., Daniel Hernandez and Randy Friese push for tougher gun laws from a "bump stock" ban to background checks after their involvement in saving Gabrielle Giffords.

For state Reps. Daniel Hernandez and Randy Friese — the Arizona Legislature's two most vocal proponents of tougher gun laws — the trajectory of their political careers were shaped on a single day: Jan. 8, 2011.

On that day, Hernandez rushed to the side of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head outside a Tucson-area supermarket. Hernandez, then a 20-year-old intern in her office, held his hand over Giffords' wound to slow the bleeding.

Friese, a trauma surgeon, tried unsuccessfully to save the life of 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green before readying Giffords for the first surgery that would ultimately save hers.

Seven years later, the events of the mass shooting — a gunman killed 6 people and wounded 13 others, including Giffords — still weigh on Hernandez and Friese as they continue a years-long fight for tougher gun regulations at the Arizona Capitol.

Is there an 'appetite' for gun laws?

The Legislature began its 2018 session on the anniversary of the Jan. 8 shooting, and the duo again has proposed a slate of gun-related bills, from background checks to a ban on "bump stock" devices.

But their efforts are unlikely to succeed at the Capitol, where the Republican majority regularly pushes to loosen firearm restrictions, not tighten them. Still, Hernandez and Friese, both Democrats from Tucson, said they plan to keep working for "common sense" laws.

"I personally believe that there is an appetite in Arizona, in the electorate, for us to discuss this problem," Friese said. "We need to look at this as a public health issue. I believe this is an epidemic."

Hernandez, who drew national praise for his actions during the 2011 shooting and later ran for office, said they're taking a different approach this year.

They hope to find common ground with Republicans on bump stocks, devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire more rapidly and were used in the Las Vegas massacre.

Will a bump-stock ban gain traction?

They have proposed House Bill 2023, which would ban bump stocks and other devices designed to make semi-automatics fire similar to fully-automatic weapons.

Such devices attach to the rear end of a rifle and use the energy from its recoil to move the rifle back and forth rapidly against the shooter's trigger finger.

Bump stocks have been around for years, but drew attention in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, which killed 58 people and injured more than 540. The shooter used bump stocks on many of the rifles he fired from his 32nd-floor hotel room.

Federal officials have debated regulating the devices, but haven't taken final action.

Hernandez and Friese said they're proposing the bill in light of the tragedy in Las Vegas, saying that there's no logical reason for gun owners to outfit their rifles to fire rounds at a speed like that of a machine gun.

"If you’re using a bump stock to go hunting, there’s not going to be much left of that animal," Hernandez said. "There is no need for these kinds of weapons."

But the effort is likely to face strong opposition from some gun owners, who say regulations do nothing to stop those intent on causing harm.

Charles Heller, spokesman for the Arizona Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights advocacy group, called the bill a feel-good measure that wouldn't improve public safety. He said the state should focus on law enforcement efforts to target criminals, not regulations to take firearm accessories away from law-abiding citizens.

“There’s no such thing as a limitation on freedom that results in an increase in safety," Heller said. "Anybody bent on doing evil is going to do evil with or without a bump stock."

He said nobody should question whether gun owners need bump stocks, adding,"It’s an un-American question: Why do you need it? Why do you need a Corvette when you could have a Hyundai?"

Hernandez and Friese concede the fight won't be easy, but they hope to garner the support of moderate Republicans. They see it as a potential bridge to a larger conversation about gun safety in Arizona.

The country's largest gun-rights lobbying organization, the National Rifle Association, has even entertained supporting some bump stock regulations, though it hasn't backed specific legislation.

"We want to find ways to work with folks on both sides of the aisle," Hernandez said of HB 2023. "I’ve been trying to find ways for us to do little things."

Uphill fight in Legislature

Friese, who was motivated to run for the statehouse by the shooting, has repeatedly run firearm-related legislation since joining the Legislature in 2015, but has faced an uphill slog. 

In the last three sessions, he has sponsored at least 10 bills, but all those bills died without receiving a single public hearing.

This year, Friese and Hernandez are sponsoring four more pieces of firearm-related legislation, in addition to the bump stock ban:

  • HB 2024 would require universal criminal background checks for people buying firearms. It would close the so-called "gun show" or "private sale" loophole by requiring a private person selling or transferring a firearm to go through a licensed firearm dealer, with some exceptions. Licensed dealers are required to run background checks.
  • House Concurrent Resolution 2001 is nearly identical to HB 2024, but its asks legislators to put the issue of universal background questions on the ballot.
  • HB 2140 would create a process where immediate family members or a police officer can petition a judge for an injunction to prohibit someone with mental-health issues from possessing a gun.
  • HB 2299 would require a person on probation for a domestic-violence offense to hand all their firearms over to a law enforcement agency for the duration of their probation.

Most of the bills Friese and Hernandez have proposed are assigned to the House Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. They must receive a public hearing and affirmative vote in that committee to get out of committee and advance.

Whether the bills get a hearing is solely dependent on the committee's chairman: Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert. He didn't respond to a request for comment about the issue.

Friese said while the Legislature is unlikely to approve their bills, holding hearings would allow people to talk about solutions. To make progress, he said, everyone must agree there is a problem.

“I feel strongly that we’re not allowing the system to work because we’re not having public hearings," Friese said. "I don't know what they're afraid of."

Hernandez said several law enforcement officials in his district, which spans a large section of the U.S.-Mexico border, have told him they support a bump stock ban and stricter requirements for background checks.

Among them is Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, a lawman with a 50-year career. Estrada said he's grown increasingly concerned that law enforcement could "completely be outgunned" by criminals given the devices available to private buyers.

"The firearm industry has produced some very lethal weapons, and it’s all business," he said. "It has not been in the best interest of the country or this state."

However, law enforcement is also divided about whether the proposed bills are necessary.

Ken Crane, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the large union that represents the city's officers, said his group isn't supporting the bills related to bump stocks or background checks.

He calls the proposed bump-stock ban "a solution in search of a problem." Crane said many guns used to commit crimes are stolen anyway and someone bent on breaking the law obviously won't comply with a bump-stock prohibition.

“Try as you might, you’re never going to be able to legislate evil out of existence," he said.


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