Capt. Mark Kelly, distinguished astronaut, U.S. Navy captain and best-selling author, visited the University of South Dakota campus April 10. Later in the evening, Kelly headlined as the keynote speaker for USD’s Ideafest at Aalfs Auditorium and gave his presentation entitled “Endeavor to Succeed.”
The husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords also fielded questions from South Dakota media members at the Al Neuharth Media Center conference room. The half-hour press conference focused on Kelly’s recent involvement in firearm legislation.
Kelly and Giffords started a political action committee called Americans for Responsible Solutions in January 2013 to engage citizens about ways to reduce gun violence and lobby gun control legislation. Kelly said the U.S. Senate gun control bill has kept him busy in recent weeks.
“Gabby and I and our organization have been very involved. I was on the phone just yesterday and on my ride over today with a couple U.S. senators about this very issue,” Kelly said.
Kelly said he supports legislation requiring universal background checks for firearm owners, which both he and his wife believe to be a viable solution in the firearm control debate.
“My wife and I believe there are some common sense things we can do to make it much more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to get access to firearms,” he said. “There is bipartisan support to do something in regards to this background check issue and how easy it is for folks to get guns, folks who shouldn’t get it.”
Kelly also addressed the S.D. sentinel law, passed by the state legislature earlier this year, which allows every school district the option to arm teachers, staff or community volunteers, but doesn’t require any district to bring guns into schools. Kelly said armed security officials could possibly influence attempted shootings like those in Newtown, Conn.
“What is often the case in the mass shootings we’ve seen in schools is that these things happen very fast. A security guard who is well trained and went through a background check, under the right circumstances, may be able to do something to do about that.
However, Kelly said the measure does little to solve the larger issues surrounding firearm ownership in America. In his opinion, the issue requires a number of solutions.
“I don’t think it goes a very long way to addressing the main problem and that is we have given criminals and the dangerously mentally ill easy access to firearms,” he said. “This is a complicated issue; why is it in this country we have 15-20 times the murder rates of other countries. Its not just one thing, so I think there are a lot of things we can do.”
During his presentation in Aalfs auditorium, Kelly spoke about the defining moments of his life. He cited his strong work ethic as the key motivator behind his success. For example, Kelly said at one point, he struggled to land a fighter plane onto an aircraft carrier deck.
“Tom Cruise the actor, not the character (in “Top Gun”), probably would have been better at landing it,” he said.
He recalled the details of his first combat mission as a stealth bomber pilot during the Persian Gulf War, a night in which Kelly learned a valuable lesson.
After successfully dropping a payload on an intended target in Iraq, Kelly and his co-pilot encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire. As pilot, he decided to return to U.S. aircraft carriers via Iran, which was not the planned route of return. In the process, Kelly failed to alert his superior and their plane was nearly fired upon by friendly forces.
“What I learned from that night is that there is never an excuse to not properly communicate with your coworkers,” he said.
Kelly also spoke in detail about the shooting of his wife and 18 other victims at a Tucson supermarket in 2011. He said he was personally unprepared to deal with the severity of his wife’s situation.
“I had never thought of what it would be like to be a primary caregiver,” he said.
Faced with difficult decisions regarding his wife’s treatment, Kelly relied upon his training as a NASA astronaut and Navy captain to evaluate his wife’s best interests. Now, his wife’s remarkable recovery serves as an inspiration to him.
“Gabby reminds me each and every day to deny the success of failure.”