PoliticsThe Dark Humor of Tammy Duckworth, Iraq War Hero and Gun Control Advocate
The Illinois representative and Iraq War vet who lost both her legs talks about the NRA, taking her Republican colleagues hunting, and her T-shirt that says, "Lucky for me, he's an ass man."
House Republicans had called a recess. C-SPAN had shut off the cameras in the chamber. And Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth, the Iraq War veteran who lost both legs when the helicopter she was flying was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, had taken off her titanium prosthetic legs to join her fellow Democrats in the House to sit on the floor of the chamber to demand a vote on gun-control legislation.
Without C-SPAN’s video feed, members had turned to tweeting photos and livestreaming Democrats singing “We Shall Overcome” on Periscope and Facebook Live—a blatant violation of the decorous rules in the chamber. And so, to forestall her phone being taken away by Capitol Police, she slipped it into the hollow of one of her prosthetic legs. Poof!
Though the June sit-in didn’t succeed in bringing the legislation to the floor for a vote, Duckworth and her peers say they haven’t lost hope. They’ll continue fighting for what they call common-sense legislation, such as keeping suspected terrorists from buying a gun, and raising awareness of the issue. But Duckworth, who is in a tight Senate race, faces an unusual challenge on that score: Her opponent, incumbent Republican Mark Kirk, has repeatedly bucked GOP orthodoxy on gun control, joining Democrats to vote for gun restrictions.
At the office of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, just steps away from the Supreme Court, she sat down with us to talk about why she’s the better choice on gun control and how she developed a dark sense of humor about her lost legs.
GQ: During the sit-in to force a vote on gun control, you hid your phone in your prosthetic leg so it wouldn’t be taken away. What else have you hidden in there?
Tammy Duckworth: [hearty, extended laughs] Sometimes, you know, Sour Patch Kids. [laughs] My secret vice, Sour Patch Kids. Yeah, we didn't know. They ended up not doing anything, but at the time, we knew they'd cut off the feed, and you had to go off the floor to go use the restroom, and we thought when we were coming back, they might—there was a rumor going around that they were going to take our phones away. Because we were openly taking pictures and recording, which is against House rules. And we just thought, “Oh, they may actually take our phones away if we leave the floor.”
You’ve been a staunch advocate for gun control since you came to Capitol Hill as a congresswoman. But in the four years since, gun control has repeatedly failed to pass. What has to change for legislation to pass?
We need control of the Senate and we need to close the gap in the House.
Simple as that?
Yeah. There are bills out there right now, like universal background checks, that have Republican co-sponsors. But they'll never come up to the floor for a vote. Not unless Republicans are forced to compromise, and can't pass legislation without the help of Democrats. In 2013, 2014, we were able to do more bipartisan things, because the gap in the House was much smaller, and we had Democratic control in the Senate. Because Speaker Boehner had to rely on some Democratic votes.
I feel like modern Republicans, who would support sensible gun violence legislation, are pushed aside by those folks who are absolutely beholden to the NRA. And so we never get the vote.
You’ve said that your experience in combat taught you to “never leave anyone behind.” How are you guided by that in the fight for gun control?
We leave innocents behind every single day. You can just go to Chicago, where little babies are being killed in their cribs while they're sleeping because of the gun violence that [is] happening in Chicago. Mothers pushing strollers are being killed by stray bullets in Chicago. And so much of this is partially a result of lax gun violence legislation.
There's a loophole right now, that I'm cosponsoring a bill that's bipartisan to try to end, and the bill—right now, if you are a gun store owner, and you decide to go out of business, you get to convert your entire gun store inventory to personal use. And then when you sell it, you don't have to conduct background checks. People are going into Indiana, from Illinois, and going into some southern states, from Illinois, and buying massive amounts of guns without background checks. Loading them up, literally into UHauls and the trunks of cars, and driving into Chicago and selling them in back alleyways. And they were, many of them, legally purchased guns under these loopholes that occur.
You’ve offered to take Republicans voting down party lines duck hunting to discuss gun control legislation. If anyone took you up on that, what would you say to them in between shots?
I'll go! I actually prefer being on the range, I'm not a big hunter. But I'll go with you. I actually shoot. I enjoy target practice. I find it really zen. You focus on nothing but the target. You have to control your breathing. It's all part of my years in the military, where I was taught to become a marksmen, but also to respect my weapon.
What would you say to someone, a gun owner, who was planning to vote for a Republican, if you took them shooting? What would you say to them about gun control?
Well, I think I would go over what some of the very sensible legislation is, and the fact that the vast majority of Americans support this legislation. Universal background checks is something that the vast majority of voters support. Over 85 percent of Democratic voters, and 90 percent of Republican voters support universal background checks. Most people do not want people who have been convicted of violent crimes and felonies, to be able to go and buy a gun. And right now, because these loopholes exist, they can.
What could you do as a senator that you haven’t been able to do in Congress on the gun control issue?
This is where my opponent and I have very different views. For me, it's not just about gun violence, legislation on gun control. But it's also about all the factors that come into play with these shootings that are happening. I think for example, my opponent said that he, it was beyond the capacity of his Senate office to do anything about community-police relationships. I disagree. We can certainly work towards providing more grants, money, more funding, to help fund advocacy groups that work for community and police relation improvement. I think that we may have the opportunity to push hard to get the NIH to be allowed to conduct research on the effects of gun violence. That was prohibited by law. And Congress can reverse that. And I think we have an opportunity to push that out of the Senate and force it to become something that we can talk about in the House.
The bottom line is, when you're in the Senate, you have more of a voice in the beginning than a new House member. You can get to that level of seniority in the House, but you have to be re-elected multiple times. But when you become a senator, the things that you advocate for, just by nature of you being a senator, you can immediately become a leader in the nation on those issues. And it's one of the reasons why I'm running, because I want to better serve not just my congressional district, but my entire state, and my entire nation. And we have the opportunity to do some of that.
Earlier this year, you were one of just two Democrats who weren’t endorsed by Americans for Responsible Solutions, Gabby Giffords’ gun control group—they endorsed your Republican opponent, Sen. Mark Kirk. Why do you think you didn’t earn their endorsement?
They're playing politics. They needed to endorse a Republican or two to show that they're bipartisan. … I think it's short-sighted. But at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter to me, because my stance on sensible gun violence legislation doesn't change because of whether or not some outside group endorsed me. It's what I truly believe, and I think our communities will be safer places if we have sensible legislation.
Donald Trump blames the rise in military sexual assaults on women being in the military. How do you respond to Trump and others who think we would be better off if women weren't in the military, or weren't in combat roles?
Well, first and foremost, military sexual trauma predates women's service in the military. It was happening even before women were allowed to serve equally. Second of all, there are more male victims of military sexual trauma then there are female victims.* … And so, my question is, how is he going to stop the rest of it? Because it's actually male-on-male violence.
And frankly, it shows that he does not understand our military, and he does not understand the challenges, but also the capabilities of our military, and he's not fit to be commander in chief. Bottom line, our military can no longer exist and perform its duties and its missions without its female service members. Not going to be able to do it. Female service members are so integrated into the military, so critical and vital to all functions of the military, from combat service support to combat support, to direct combat, that we could not go to war as a nation, we could not defend America, without our women. And so this is a man who wants to be commander in chief and he doesn't even understand that basic fact.
Clinton unveiled her policies for people with disabilities yesterday, which is unusual for a presidential candidate. Do you think people with disabilities—including disabled veterans—are being recognized more as a powerful voting bloc than in the past?
I hope so. I don't know that they are. I am very, very pleased that Secretary Clinton did that. But you have to understand, we couldn't even pass a reaffirmation of the [Americans with Disabilities Act] to strengthen it. And we couldn't even get the United States to sign on to the International Convention of Persons With Disabilities. And it's based on the ADA. We had Bob Dole on the floor of the Senate pleading with his former colleagues, sitting in his wheelchair to please ratify this. And they still voted against it. The Republicans still voted against it.
You have a sense of humor about your amputations, and have been known to wear a shirt that says, “Lucky for me, he's an ass man."
Which I'm obsessed with.
You can Google it! You can get it online. It's available online.
Duckworth’s communications director interjects: “Please don't.”
Oh, I think she should! I'm proud of that shirt! You had the same reaction as my husband. You know, he's thrown it away at least once, and I've pulled it back out of the garbage can and worn it. [laughs]
How did you come to a place where you felt comfortable joking about that?
Well, it's thanks to the care I got at Walter Reed. And being able to recover with my fellow service members. You can choose to cry about it, and you can choose to be depressed for the rest of your life about it, but at the end of the day, I earned my injuries. I earned this. And I'm proud that I earned this. Because I earned it in defense of my nation.
And for me to not accept it would be a denial of my very own service that I'm proud of. And even more critical to me, would be a dishonor to the men who saved my life. They didn't risk their lives to save me so I could spend the rest of my life feeling sorry for myself sitting on a couch somewhere. I could do that. I would have every right to do that. But I can better honor the struggle that my crew went through to save my life by having a sense of humor about it, and showing that my life is really pretty normal. I talk about this all the time. My husband and I have fights all the time. We don't have fights because I don't have legs. We have fights because he leaves the toilet seat up. And it annoys me. [laughs]
It really is the most annoying thing.
It is. Only second to he puts the toilet paper in from underneath instead of like the paper coming out through the top. [laughs]