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Former Giffords' staffer reflects on Conn. shooting

8:01 AM, Dec 19, 2012   |    comments
Gabrielle Giffords waves to the audience at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte on Sept. 6, the final day of the Democratic National Convention.(Photo: Stan Honda, AFP/Getty Images)
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CINCINNATI -- Gavi Begtrup hopes America won't settle with the status quo this time.

The tragedy in Newtown, Conn., conjures painful memories for the 28-year-old, who recently moved to Cincinnati with his young family.

Until June, Begtrup had worked for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, to whom he had grown quite close by Jan. 8, 2011, when she was shot in Tucson, Ariz.

While Begtrup wasn't with her that day, he says his life "fundamentally changed" when six people were killed and a dozen wounded, some his colleagues and friends, at a public meeting in a grocery store parking lot.

And as the nation grieves the latest mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, Begtrup is reminded of his own suffering, his survivor's guilt and his search for answers. But mostly he's disappointed in how little has changed since his reality was shattered almost two years ago.

Begtrup hopes his experience might compel others to push for stronger restrictions on assault weapons and better medical care for the mentally ill - maybe even persuade politicians to drop the vitriolic rhetoric and consider a more civilized tone.

"This is not the first shooting, the second or third shooting this year," said Begtrup, who now works as a consultant with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.

"Every time this happens, we talk for just a moment about what we should be doing. Then people quell that conversation and say, 'It's not the time.'

"If this (shooting in Newtown) isn't the most atrocious thing; if this isn't something great enough for us to rally around in action, then I fear for our country," Begtrup said.

'I believed in Gabby'

Begtrup earned a doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, and took a job with Giffords through a fellowship paying scientists to work on Capitol Hill.

"I was always interested in policy," Begtrup said.

"(Giffords) was just this wonderfully vibrant and active person ... who cared about clean energy, NASA and aerospace - things I was really geeky about."

She hired Begtrup as her policy adviser after his fellowship ended. The two worked together for four years.

"I had the best job," Begtrup said.

"I got to work on hard problems that might make a difference."

Then, during an event Giffords called "Congress on Your Corner," 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on the crowd outside a neighborhood grocery store.

Begtrup was running a half-marathon that day with his sister in Florida and got a text message afterward stating Giffords had been hurt.

His first emotion: guilt

"Immediately I thought, 'Why wasn't I there?' " Begtrup said. "You think, 'I could have done something ... that somehow magically you would be a hero."

As in the Newtown shootings, initial reports were inaccurate, compounding Begtrup's inability to get a handle on the breadth of the tragedy.

"There was about a half an hour in which the networks were all reporting Gabby had been killed," Begtrup said.

"When that happened, it was like the floor fell out from under us."

Staff moves forward

In the aftermath, Giffords' staff had to decide how to proceed as the congresswoman began her slow recovery.

"We didn't know if she was ever coming back," Begtrup said.

"Eventually we found our way into a rhythm of doing the work that she would have wanted done."

Begtrup focused on writing policy that would increase the use of renewable energy and reduce energy costs for the military - two areas he knew Giffords would support. He built coalitions and spearheaded meetings, getting other members of Congress on board.

In 2011, with the support of U.S. Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, several pieces of legislation written by Begtrup were included in the National Defense Authorization Act, including the formation of a joint task force to consider alternative fuel development for military vehicles.

"That is what helped me keep going," Begtrup said.

Closure not easy to find

Begtrup hopes one day he'll be able to talk to Giffords about what happened and whether she was proud of what they accomplished while she was gone.

"When I first saw her (after the shooting in) February 2011, she couldn't speak," he said.

"It has been wonderful to watch her regain her ability, slowly, to communicate. ... These things are always bittersweet; on one hand you think it's wonderful she can communicate at the level she can, but if you think about it too hard you compare it to the woman you once knew, and that's very hard."

Nearly two years later - and a month after Loughner took a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison. Begtrup says he's still trying to wrap his head around what happened that day.

"Those are the sorts of experiences that you can't unmake - that really form the person you are," Begtrup said.

He believes Loughner is mentally ill, despite legal wrangling over his competency.

And he says he hopes the country starts addressing the difficult issues that arise when events of this magnitude occur.

"Some will say this is an act of an evil person, but ... it's not right to call someone (who's) mentally ill evil," Begtrup said.

"Those same people say evil exists in the world and there's nothing we can do about it - but that's absurd. We didn't do that after Sept. 11.

"We have policy and lack of policy that allow these things to happen more frequently and more devastatingly."

Carrie Blackmore Smith, The Cincinnati Enquirer

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