"This may be a tipping point," said Kelly, a retired Gulf War veteran, Navy pilot and NASA space shuttle commander. "We can't tolerate 20 children and their teachers being murdered in their school."
In an interview Friday, Kelly emphasized that both he and Giffords, a centrist Democrat, own guns and support the Second Amendment right of Americans to bear arms and defend themselves.
On Tuesday, the couple announced the creation of Americans for Responsible Solutions to focus on ways to reduce gun violence.
"I don't want my guns taken away," Kelly said. "We believe our organization is a place gun owners could come and feel good about supporting an organization that stands up for their rights but also tries to motivate members of Congress to do the right thing and take some common-sense measures to reduce gun violence."
Those measures, Kelly said, are:
• Banning automatic weapons
• Banning high-capacity magazines
• Requiring universal background checks on everyone who buys a gun, and
• Ensuring that people with a history of serious mental illness cannot buy guns.
Giffords was shot in the head on Jan. 8, 2011, by Jared Lee Loughner, a man with a history of mental illness who used a semi-automatic handgun with a high-capacity magazine to kill six people and wound 13 others. The shooting rampage took place outside a grocery store near Tucson where Giffords was hosting a "Congress on Your Corner" event.
The couple's new political action committee has already received a pledge of more than $1 million in donations from Texas attorney and gun owner Steve Mostyn and his wife, Amber. Mostyn is treasurer of the new political action committee.
Contributions to the group will be used in the next election to make independent expenditures in support of like-minded candidates. They will not, as many PACs do, give money directly to candidates' campaign committees. Giffords and Kelly also are creating a lobbying organization aimed at persuading members of Congress to take action to reduce gun violence.
Their efforts come as the Obama administration is considering taking some kind of executive action on gun control and pushing stricter gun laws in Congress.
"I own a handgun, and I think everybody has the right to own a gun to protect themselves in their homes," Kelly said. "But I don't believe you need assault weapons to protect yourself."
"They're great for the military," Kelly added. "They're designed to kill a lot of people very quickly."
High-capacity magazines make weapons even deadlier, allowing shooters to fire dozens of rounds in a matter of seconds, Kelly said. Loughner fired more than 30 rounds in about 15 seconds, according to police accounts. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in November to life in prison.
If gun buyers had been restricted to a standard magazine, Loughner would have had to stop to re-load after firing 10 rounds and could have been stopped before he shot as many people, Kelly said.
Kelly said that difference could have saved the life of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, the youngest victim killed in the shooting rampage near Tucson.
"Is it worth it for gun owners like me to be limited to magazines with 10 rounds if it could bring back Christina or some of those children in Newtown?" Kelly said. "Absolutely."
Police analysis of the chaotic shooting scene make it impossible to know whether Christina was shot after the first 10 rounds of gunfire or before.
Kelly said he knows he and Giffords face a tough opponent in the gun lobby, led by the 4 million-plus-member National Rifle Association. In the last election cycle, the NRA reported giving more than $1 million directly to congressional candidates and making more than $11 million in independent expenditures on behalf of candidates who oppose any new gun restrictions.
The NRA, which did not respond to requests for comment, has given campaign contributions to all of the Republicans in the Arizona congressional delegation, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission by the NRA and the lawmakers.
In the 2011-2012 election cycle, the NRA gave nearly $6,000 to Rep. Paul Gosar, $3,500 to Rep. Trent Franks, $2,000 to Rep. David Schweikert, and $1,000 to Rep. Matt Salmon. It also gave $1,000 to Republican candidate Martha McSally, who was narrowly defeated by Democratic Rep. Ron Barber. Barber, a former aide to Giffords, was one of those wounded by Loughner.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., received nearly $7,000 from the NRA, which also spent more than $344,000 in independent expenditures in his Senate race.
"I think that's what makes this a big challenge," Kelly said. "The gun lobby has a lot of influence with members of Congress. That's why we wanted to create an organization that addresses gun violence from a common-sense perspective."
Reaching out to politically moderate gun owners is a smart strategy, said Kristin Goss, a political science professor at Duke University who has written extensively about the politics of gun control.
"They may be able to speak to those who grew up with guns and believe that guns are fundamental to American culture and democracy but are also willing to entertain some stricter regulations," Goss said. "There are moderate gun owners who aren't in lockstep with the NRA leadership."
Still, Giffords and Kelly face "a titanic struggle," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
"The gun advocates' dominant strategy is to stall, to slow things down and try to stop anything from happening while the emotional tide from these mass shootings is against them," Jillson said. "They're hoping the emotion will dissipate before any new laws can be passed."
The effort by Giffords and Kelly will help keep the issue in the forefront, analysts said. The issue also will be highlighted by the upcoming trial of the suspected gunman who killed 12 people and wounded scores of others when he opened fire on a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., last July.
"Politically speaking, now is the time for gun control advocates to push their cause," said Harry Wilson, a public affairs professor and gun policy expert at Roanoke College in Virginia. "This atmosphere is as good as it gets for them. If these folks can't get anything significant passed now, then that war is effectively over."
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)