SARASOTA -- Mark Kelly, retired NASA astronaut, Navy veteran and husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, spoke Monday about his efforts to control gun violence in America.
At the press conference before his highly inspirational talk Monday in the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall Lecture Series, Kelly said he and his wife decided to speak out after the mass killing incident in Newtown, Conn.
"This is not what we wanted to do," said the former NASA astronaut, "but we had to -- 20 first-graders were massacred."
In December, a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot 20 children and six educators dead.
Kelly and his wife were personally touched by gun violence in January 2011, when Giffords, a Democratic congresswoman from Arizona, was shot in the head while meeting with constituents in a supermarket parking lot.
Six people died during the incident when the gunman opened fired into the crowd. Giffords is continuing her recovery.
"Everyone has to do something to have an effect on a horrible situation," Kel
Kelly believes the country will move toward a solution. After he and Giffords spoke before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, he saw some common ground on the issue.
"I can tell you that the thinking on the committee was to do something," said the retired Navy captain and pilot. "Doing nothing is not an option."
He said one area where there may be agreement is having universal background checks.
"Since 1999, 1.7 million criminals failed the background check and were denied gun permits," Kelly said.
But many of those 1.7 million went to gun shows and purchased guns, he said.
Kelly said he thought there was a real opportunity to get background check legislation passed.
Having access to mental health care also is important and needs to be addressed, he said.
"The gunman who shot my wife was obviously mentally ill," Kelly said.
At the press conference, Kelly touched on a controversy in the conservative blogosphere. Conservatives said he was being hypocritical buying an AR-15 assault weapon and a semi-automatic pistol last week in a gun store.
Kelly said he made the purchases to understand the background check system, which only took a few minutes. He plans to turn the weapons into the Tucson Police Department.
During his presentation to a sold-out audience in the 1,800-seat Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, Kelly spoke of his father, who was a detective in a police department in New Jersey, and of his mother, who was a waitress until in the early 1970s when she decided to also become a police officer.
He said she had to pass the same physical fitness tests as the men, including climbing over a seven-foot wall.
After months of practice, she not only was able to get over the obstacle, but she did it in four seconds, five seconds quicker than the nine allotted.
"She was one of the first female police officers in New Jersey," Kelly said.
He graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and joined the Navy, where he flew combat missions over Iraq and Kuwait during the first Iraqi war. As an astronaut, Kelly was training in Houston as commander of the last flight of the space shuttle Endeavour when he got the call about his wife being shot.
He said he questioned if he had the patience needed to help Giffords after the long and difficult time it would take for her recovery.
But his wife's hard work to learn how to walk and talk again taught him the patience, he said.
"The power of the human spirit is incredible," he said.