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How Virginia Congressional Shooting Echoes 2011 Attack


When Ron Barber heard about today's shooting at a congressional baseball practice, it took him back to January 8, 2011. That was the day Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot at a constituent event outside of a grocery store in Arizona. Ron Barber was among the wounded. He was a member of Giffords' staff and went on to win her seat after she resigned. He served in Congress until 2014 and has continued to advocate for civil political discourse and for expanding mental health services. He joins us now from Tucson.

Congressman Barber, welcome to the program.

RON BARBER: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: What went through your mind when you first heard the news about today's shooting?

BARBER: Well, it took me back to that tragic day in 2011, January 8, seeing the woman I worked for, Congresswoman Giffords, shot and then Judge Roll and myself and others. It definitely brought me back to that time. But the other thing that I was thinking about this morning when I heard the news was the impact on the families of those who were shot. I found out much later after the surgery and recovery that - how my family has reacted. And they were just devastated by the news. And so I think when we're talking about something like this, we can never forget to send our wishes and be compassionate towards the family members because they are suffering too.

SHAPIRO: The shooting that you experienced took place during one of Congresswoman Giffords' Congress on Your Corner meetings with constituents. And the week that you were sworn in, you continued the tradition despite what you had just been through. You've been very vocal about lawmakers and constituents meeting. Do you still feel that way?

BARBER: Absolutely. You know, we are a representative democracy, and that means that members of Congress have to be accessible to the people they represent whether they voted for them or not. And I was insistent after I was sworn in on June 19 that we have a Congress on Your Corner very earliest opportunity, so we had it four days later.

And the thing that really was touching and encouraging to me was that 350 people showed up, many more than we ever see. And they were there, almost to a person, to say, we're here because we support and believe in members of Congress being totally accessible to the people they serve. And I still believe that very strongly. We have to be smart about security at public events, but we have to be accessible.

SHAPIRO: How do you think the political climate, the nature of the dialogue today compares to six years ago?

BARBER: I'm afraid to say it's worse. I think the campaign of 2016 rose to a level of toxicity that I've never seen in this country and hope never see again. I do believe that even though we had a very difficult circumstance following the Affordable Care Act vote that Congresswoman Giffords took in 2009 - and then subsequently the election campaign was very difficult.

You know, what is happening today, what has happened in our congressional and national politics is a level of vitriol, a level of harsh rhetoric and personal attacks that's just not good for the country. And I call on everybody from the president on down to encourage and by their behavior show, model what we want to be as a country in terms of our political discourse. We have to be more civil and respectful.

SHAPIRO: What did you learn from your recovery that might be helpful to the victims and the families recovering from today's shooting?

BARBER: I learned that there are both physical and emotional wounds that you have to deal with. And of course the medical personnel are taking care of the surgeries and the victims, where they were shot. But my guess is that virtually everyone who witnessed this and certainly those who were shot will go through an emotional experience that is very profound.

And for me, I learned that I needed help. I got counseling almost immediately, and then I - because I couldn't sleep at night. I was having terrible flashbacks. I had the good fortune of having a therapy called EMDR which is used a lot on post-traumatic stress disorder. What I hope will happen for both of the victims, people who were shot and their families, is if they feel that emotional challenge or upset, that they will seek help because help is there, and treatment works.

SHAPIRO: All right, Congressman Barber, thank you very much for joining us.

BARBER: Thank you, too.

SHAPIRO: That's former U.S. Representative Ron Barber of Arizona. He was wounded during the attack in 2011 that targeted Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.