TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — As the one-minute television campaign ad for U.S. Rep. Ron Barber extols the virtues of southern Arizona and independent thinking, the narrator's voice stands out. It's none other than the woman who once held the House seat: Gabby Giffords.
Giffords and the January 2011 shooting that ultimately forced her to step away from her seat loom large as Barber seeks re-election. The race between him and Republican Martha McSally has grown tighter in recent weeks, and Giffords is playing more of a role in the campaign by turning the contest into a debate about guns.
Giffords became the face of the gun control movement after she was shot through the head as she met with constituents outside a grocery store in Tucson. The attack killed six and left 13 injured, including Giffords, who is now partially paralyzed and struggles with speech. Barber, who was her district director at the time, was shot in the leg and face.
Barber defeated McSally in 2012 by only a few hundred votes in the district that spans from Tucson to Arizona's border with Mexico. In this year's rematch, outside groups have spent a total of $11.7 million on the race, making it one of the costliest in the country, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Americans for Responsible Solutions, the organization founded by Giffords and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, has poured $1.5 million into the race, funding TV ads criticizing McSally for her stances against proposed gun-control measures. The organization is spending millions on 11 congressional races this season, but the two that have gotten the most attention are in Arizona and New Hampshire, said Pia Carusone, the organization's senior adviser.
For Barber, expanding background checks to gun shows and online sales is one of the first steps in addressing gun violence.
"I think there's a broad number of people across our community that feel the way I do and they have not, thank God, been involved in a personal tragedy like me," the Democrat said. "So I think people get it that we have to do something to minimize the opportunity for dangerous people to have a weapon."
McSally, a retired Air Force colonel, declined to answer questions from The Associated Press about her positions on gun control. She has also dodged the subject in other media interviews and in a televised debate. But her spokesman said she supports the "full enforcement of federal laws that are in place to keep guns out of the hands of prohibited persons, including convicted felons, domestic abusers, the mentally ill, stalkers and persons without documentation."
The candidates' differences over gun control have sparked heated exchanges.
A TV ad produced by Giffords' group that denounced McSally's opposition to banning misdemeanor-convicted stalkers from buying guns was pulled after McSally said she had been a victim of stalking and supported keeping guns out of stalkers' hands.
McSally called the ad vile, imploring Barber during a debate in Tucson to denounce it. Barber refused, saying he hadn't been involved in the ad. He went on to chide her for still not supporting expanded background checks.
The National Rifle Association has spent about $27,000 supporting McSally, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group. NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the organization considers each race unique but that instead of spending large amounts of money, the NRA relies on members to advocate on its behalf.
Jan Cole, a retiree who lives in Sierra Vista, said her brother was gunned down by a mentally disturbed neighbor about six years ago. She supports McSally but also favors expanding background checks for sales at gun shows and online— a view her candidate of choice does not appear to share.
"I have a gun. I wouldn't be without it," Cole said. "But the guns are in the hands of people who have mental disabilities."
Sue Jones, a Tucson resident, also supports expanding background checks. But unlike Cole, she supports Barber.
"I think we are way too liberal on gun positions in Arizona and in the country," Jones said. "Guns are too highly available."