Surgeon who treated Giffords after shooting launches bid for open House seat

State Rep. Randy Friese has pushed gun control measures in Arizona

Surgeon Randy Friese, a Democrat in the Arizona state legislature, announced he will seek the open 2nd District seat in the House. (Courtesy Randy Friese for Congress)
Surgeon Randy Friese, a Democrat in the Arizona state legislature, announced he will seek the open 2nd District seat in the House. (Courtesy Randy Friese for Congress)
Posted March 25, 2021 at 1:39pm

As the trauma surgeon who treated former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after a gunman shot her and 18 others outside a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store, Randy Friese has more firsthand experience than most with mass shootings. 

Friese was thinking about that now-infamous January 2011 day on Thursday, when he announced plans to run for Congress in a seat that includes parts of Tucson. 

“I feel the pain and the sorrow and the loss and the grief all over again,” he said in an interview. “There’s this personal sense of, I should be doing more, I should accomplish more.” 

The shooting 10 years ago was a “defining moment” in Friese’s career, he said. It inspired him to run for the state Legislature, where he has become a leading advocate for gun reform measures over the past seven years. A retired Navy lieutenant commander, he still works part time at the Banner University Medical Center in Tucson and teaches surgery at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. 

Friese had already been laying groundwork for the run in the 2nd District. The district, which will be redrawn in the fall, became open with Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s March 12 announcement that she will not seek reelection in 2012. Republicans have said they are targeting the seat. 

So it was just a coincidence that he made his campaign public in the aftermath of two other mass shootings — one inside a grocery store in Boulder, Colo. — that claimed 18 more lives and again placed gun violence in the center of the national conversation. 

His work in the operating room has been hailed since then as a major reason why Giffords, who was shot in the head, survived. But six people died — including 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, whom Friese also treated — and 12 others were injured. 

As a state representative, Friese has worked on gun issues along with Daniel Hernandez, who was a 20-year-old intern in Giffords’ office and helped stanch her bleeding after she was shot. But, as with similar efforts in Washington, many of their efforts have been consistently blocked. 

Multiple bills every year

Friese said he makes a point of introducing multiple pieces of gun control legislation every year. The most aggressive of his proposals would mandate a  comprehensive background check on every gun purchase in the state. He has also proposed more piecemeal measures, including legislation that would require primary care providers and pediatricians to instruct families on gun storage during routine visits. 

None of those proposals has passed, but Friese said he took heart when, this year, a bill that would make it easier for state officials to recall concealed carry permits if the possessor is convicted of a felony made it further than any other proposal of his career. The measure made it out of a Republican-controlled committee to a vote on the House floor, where it was scuttled. 

“I’m encouraged,” he said. “I say to a lot of people, gun safety advocates are like water dripping on a rock. We are persistent. We are focused, and we will eventually effect change.”

He said he sees a unique opportunity for change on a national level now, noting that the administration of President Joe Biden has made it a priority and the Democratic-controlled House recently passed two background check measures that had failed to make it through Congress after the Parkland shooting in 2018. Both measures are expected to have trouble making it through the 50-50 Senate, where Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, is part of the narrow majority and up for reelection next year.

“Even though they may not have the votes to pass them in the Senate, hopefully they’ll have a very public discussion and debate about it,” he said. “To me, that’s progress.” 

Experience with victims’ families

As for his own role in the process, he said, he brings a unique perspective because of his experience taking care of patients whose lives have been altered by gun violence. 

“I’ve told a mother that her child has died,” he said. “I have told a wife that her husband will never walk again. It’s a conversation that I think people aren’t having, policymakers aren’t having. Because they don’t know what that experience is like. So I want to be able to bring that experience to Congress and talk to my colleagues about it and make sure they understand what they’re ignoring and what they’re refusing to talk about.”

His other priorities include addressing the health care crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic. He noted that he has been an advocate for expanding health care options on the insurance exchange created by the 2010 health care law, along with infrastructure improvements and public education. 

Those priorities put him in the center of the Democratic Party, although he declined to apply such labels to his own politics. 

With Kirpatrick’s retirement still new, the Democratic primary is expected to be crowded. State Sen. Kristen Engel, an attorney and environmental law professor at the University of Arizona, was the first to announce a run last week. She is expected to campaign as a centrist.  

The National Republican Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, has already announced that they see the seat, along with the neighboring 1st District occupied by Rep. Tom O’Halleran, as prime 2022 targets

Redistricting uncertainty

There is also uncertainty surrounding what district Friese will actually be running in. Congressional lines will be redrawn before the midterm elections to reflect the 2020 census, the results of which have been delayed. 

Arizona could also gain a House seat, and new district boundaries are supposed to be drawn by a bipartisan commission, but the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature has been working to eliminate that process. 

Some Democratic strategists who spoke to Roll Call said many competitive candidates will likely wait until the fall to formally announce bids. 

But Friese said he isn’t concerned. “I think getting in the race early is a smart move, and we’ll see how that process develops,” he said. 

Shortly after he announced his race, 314 Action, a group that supports scientists running for Congress, sent a congratulatory email to its press list. The district is one of the group’s initial targets as it plans to spend $50 million to elect scientists in congressional and statewide races in 2022. 

The group is not formally endorsing, said spokesman John Sweeney. “But we’re supportive of Dr. Friese’s candidacy and will become more involved as things progress,” he said.

Kelly and Giffords have not announced a position on the race, but they held a campaign event for Friese at their home during his 2016 state House bid. Giffords’ early endorsement was considered pivotal for Kirkpatrick when she faced a crowded Democratic primary for the seat in 2018.