MIAMI — Seeing her father’s body with gunshot wounds was one of the most traumatic moments for former Florida congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell as she grappled with the shock and grief of losing him to gun violence in 1996.
The former Democratic lawmaker, who was the first South American-born member of Congress, will now be working on what she calls her “life mission” by joining Giffords, a gun control advocacy group, as a senior adviser, the organization is announcing Tuesday. The group is named after former Arizona Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely wounded during a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona.
“The images of seeing my father laying there with gunshot wounds are very traumatic,” Mucarsel-Powell said, as she recalled traveling to her native Ecuador, where her father lived. Her father, an entrepreneur of Lebanese descent who lived in the city of Guayaquil, was gunned down as he arrived home from work. The gunman was never found, she said.
In her new role, Mucarsel-Powell who represented Florida’s 26th congressional district for two years, will be working to coax a divided Senate to pass gun safety legislation, such as the recently passed Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, that would expand background checks for all firearm sales or transfers in the country. The bill would close a gap in federal law that allows gun sales without a completed background check if three business days have passed.
Recent mass shootings have put a focus back on gun background checks. Over the past three weeks, 22 people have died in three mass shootings. Mucarsel-Powell will also work to build a larger coalition of supporters and educate the public on gun safety.
“Debbie is a powerful leader in South Florida that we worked with for a long time,” Giffords Executive Director Peter Ambler said. “We worked with her as a candidate, we worked with her as a congresswoman.”
He said Mucarsel Powell is “somebody who embodies this country’s experience with gun violence and its resolve to end it” and that she is “also somebody who has worked across party lines.”
Addressing gun violence, Mucarsel-Powell said, is one of the reasons she ran for office. She led efforts in the House of Representatives to pass new gun control legislation, becoming the vice chair of the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. She also served in the powerful House Judiciary Committee.
Florida, her home state, has faced a rise in mass shootings. The deadliest in recent times were the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland that left 17 dead and the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando that claimed 49 lives.
Mucarsel-Powell said she has become close with families who have lost loved ones in mass shootings, including a woman who lost her son in the Orlando shooting. The pain they constantly feel throughout their lives bonds them.
“There’s so much trauma when you lose a loved one in that way. It’s completely unexpected. It’s shocking, it’s violent, you always have questions,” she said.
She said it was tough not to have her father walk her down the aisle, and she longed for him to meet her children when they were born.
“You learn to live with it but it’s a pain that never goes away, and it’s a pain that bonds survivors of gun violence,” she said. “I call all of us survivors, because even if we weren’t present at the time — just losing someone in that manner, makes you a survivor of violence.”
She said every time there is a mass shooting or she hears of a drive-by shooting, it triggers the pain, trauma, anger for the lack of action by elected officials “who know very well they have the power to do something to prevent the next mass shooting or the next violent attack.”
“We have created a culture of guns in this country,” she said. “This is a unique opportunity with President Biden who supports passing gun reform laws.”
Nearly two-thirds of people in the country support tougher gun laws in a USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll conducted in the wake of the mass shootings.
She blames the influence of the powerful gun lobby on elected officials for the lack of gun control legislation.
“We cannot continue to live in a country where gun violence has become a new normal. I do believe that the time is now … The House acted very quickly thanks to the work of Gabby Giffords,” Mucarsel Powell said.
“There’s no more time to debate this issue. There’s no more time to hear from Senate Republicans why they believe H.R. 8 is not going to prevent another mass shooting,” she said.