Compass: Giffords know firsthand about the costs of gun loopholes

As I was facing the BBQ in a raincoat for the friends coming over this rainy Fourth of July, I also reflected on the very special patriotic experience I and other Alaskans had a couple of days ago. I am speaking of the short Alaska visit of Gabby Gifford and Mark Kelly. Nationally known since being shot in a horrific massacre in Tucson, Ariz., the former congresswoman and her husband have come back into the public spotlight.

Their background of public service marks them as patriots by any standard. Gabby served for over 10 years in state and federal elected public office. Attending a constituent meeting, she was severely wounded with a point-blank shot in her head; 17 others were hit, with six dead, including a 9-year-old girl.

Her husband, Mark, served as a Navy captain, flying 39 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm, and then as a NASA astronaut, including commanding the final mission of Space Shuttle Endeavor.

Their story of service, sacrifice, and love of country is what the Fourth of July is all about. And for Alaskans they are an amazingly easy fit. With no entourage and a friendly neighbor approach, Mark talks about his Alaska experiences as a pilot and astronaut -- including a 12-day team-building, ocean-kayaking wilderness camping experience in Prince William Sound with his shuttle team. Gabby is a stunning person. When meeting her, she extends her left hand and a warm endearing smile covers her face. When asked, "How are you?" her reply in a halting but confident tone is, "I'm doing fine and I'm getting better every day!"

Gabby and Mark have begun a new chapter in their public service. Their mission is to elevate the public discussion about gun rights and gun safety to a national consensus about protecting the innocent victims in the 30,000 deaths from gun violence each year. This would begin by closing the gaping loopholes in the required background checks for gun sales. Today, all gun dealers must have a federal license and conduct background checks on all gun sales. Internet sales and gun shows do not require background checks.

Their advocacy for a change in our gun laws came reluctantly, Mark said. After the shooting in Tucson, they were focused on getting their lives back together. And that was still true after the bloodshed in Aurora, Colo. But then, after Newtown, Conn., where 20 elementary school children were massacred by a shooter who fired 154 bullets at them, they felt they had to speak out.

Ninety percent of the American public agrees with closing the loopholes on background checks. According to a recent poll 72 percent of Alaskans support this change for safer communities. And this makes sense. With the current law 40 percent of all gun sales do not involve a background check. Some say that to extend the background check is an "erosion of our Second Amendment rights." But, if the background checks that take place for the first 60 percent of sales protects our communities -- and no one is calling for that 20-year-old Brady Law to be discarded -- then how can they say that the other 40 percent is an attack on the Second Amendment?

I share their values and their message. As a Vietnam vet, gun owner, sometimes hunter, and father I believe in gun rights and responsibilities. That includes a background check for all gun sales.

What makes Mark and Gabby's campaign different is their respect, discuss and listen approach. To them it's not about which party is in power or about threats and promises of raising money. The issue is only their support of the rights of gun ownership and belief in safer communities. Gabby Giffords, as a former congresswoman in the pro-gun state of Arizona, understands the politics. She also is a living testament that the status quo isn't good enough.

Tony Knowles served as governor of Alaska from 1994 to 2002 and mayor of Anchorage from 1981 to 1987.