WASHINGTON — Amid a national debate on gun control, a meeting room in the Capitol was dedicated today to a congressional aide killed in the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz.
Gabe Zimmerman was killed when a gunman opened fire at a constituent meet-and-greet event hosted outside a Tucson supermarket by then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, killing six and shooting the congresswoman in the head. Giffords, her former staff members, and husband Mark Kelly were among those in attendance at the ceremony for her lost colleague.
“He was called the constituent whisperer,” Kelly said. “Because if there was ever a grumpy or agitated constituent at the office or at an event, Gabe was the only person that could figure out how to console them. He had a gift with people.”
The afternoon event was not intentionally timed with the national debate on gun rights, but Kelly, an astronaut who has taken an ardent role as a gun control activist with his wife since the tragedy, remarked on the coincidence.
“Some people say that a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun,” he continued. “I always remind people that there was a good guy with a gun at the Safeway that morning. But in the chaotic 15 seconds that unfolded where 33 rounds were shot, he didn’t have any time to react.”
Kelly said it was “no surprise” to him to learn that Zimmerman reportedly ran towards the gunfire unarmed during the shooting.
Giffords had difficulty speaking at the event due to head injuries she sustained in Tucson, and allowed her husband to speak on her behalf. The ceremony was also attended by Zimmerman’s family, Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker John Boehner, and representatives Nancy Pelosi, Jeff Flake, Steny Hoyer, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and Ron Barber — the last a former staffer for Giffords and her successor in office.
Along with the remembrance of Zimmerman today came an added tone from the bombings Monday at the Boston Marathon.
“You probably more than anyone in this room today can understand how the people in Boston feel today,” Biden told the assembled family. “Lots of times we’re united in our victories, but more often we’re united in our tragedies. It gives you a window into how difficult things are for other people.”
Although he admitted words of encouragement in a time of tragedy could seem “hollow,” he recollected a conversation with his own mother following the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident.
“She said, ‘Joey, if you look hard enough something good will come out of everything bad,’” he said, gesturing to Gabe Zimmerman’s father, Ross Zimmerman. “We will come out of what’s happened in Boston stronger, and believe it or not you will be stronger. He’s in your bloodstream, pal. He’s part of you. There’s no way — there’s no way it ever goes away.”
Ross Zimmerman said the fact that the dedication of the room to his son would come a day after the attack on the Boston Marathon was “strange and surreal,” as he and his son were avid marathon runners. But he asked for future lawmakers roaming the halls of congress to see the plaque hanging in the Zimmerman Meeting Room and remember the ideals of public service for which his son strove.
“An echo of Gabriel will persist, perhaps for centuries,” Ross Zimmerman said. “That isn’t worth the loss but the echo is good and true.”