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An injured Jackie Speier being transported from a plane to a hospital, after she was shot five times in Jonestown.

Q & A

Jackie Speier Is a Rare Politician — One Who’s Survived Being Shot

Left for dead in the 1978 Jonestown massacre, the California congresswoman revisits the episode that sparked her career-long crusade for gun reform.

Jackie Speier has spent the past 35 years as a state and federal lawmaker, devoting much of her energy to the issue of gun violence. For the 65-year-old congresswoman, the problem is not an abstract one. As a 28-year-old legal adviser to California Representative Leo Ryan, Speier was shot five times while accompanying a delegation of lawmakers and journalists on a fact-finding mission to the People’s Temple Agricultural Project, a Guyanese commune better known as Jonestown, led by enigmatic Indiana Communist and community organizer Jim Jones.

While they hustled defectors onto a plane bound for the U.S., Ryan’s team was ambushed by several of Jones’s security guards. The congressman and four others were shot to death. Speier, who had hidden behind one of the plane’s wheels to try to avoid the gunfire, lay bleeding on the tarmac for a day, drinking Guyanese rum to kill the pain, before finally being rescued. It was soon after the shooting on the airstrip that Jones ordered his congregation to drink a fatal concoction of cyanide-laced Flavor Aid, leading to the mass murder-suicide of more than 900 Americans. 

The Trace recently spoke with Speier about how the events of that day have shaped her political career, and why successful gun reform requires new ways of thinking.

As far as I’ve been able to learn, you may be the only sitting member of Congress who has been shot. 

I probably am the only civilian, I guess, who’s been the victim of gun violence. [Rhode Island Representative] Jim Langevin is paralyzed and in a wheelchair because of a gun accident when he was working as an intern in a police station. Someone discharged a gun and it hit him.

It’s rare that a lawmaker has experienced gun violence first-hand. Did you have the issue in mind when you went into politics nearly 30 years ago, or did it become a natural focus after the fact?  

I carried the assault weapon ban in the state legislature in California in 1989. During an exchange between me and one of my Republican colleagues on the assembly floor when I presented the bill, one of my colleagues got up and said, “Ms. Speier, I have a question for you. Have you ever shot an assault weapon?” And I said, “No, Assemblyman. But let me ask you a question: Have you ever been shot by an assault weapon?” And the place went kinda silent. The bill flew off the floor, and then Republican governor Pete Wilson signed it into law. So yes, I have a long-time position and advocacy for gun violence prevention.  

Can you describe your injuries from the shooting?

The Congressman was shot 45 times. I was shot five times — at point-blank range. I was shot in my arm, leg, and back. My whole right leg was blown up, and the bullet that went through my back just missed the spinal cord.

I was hospitalized for over two months and had 10 surgeries. I was under U.S. Marshal protection 24 hours a day when I was hospitalized, and I went home with a U.S. Marshal by my side. I came home on a Friday, and Monday was the last day to file papers to run for the Congressman’s seat. There were already 11 candidates in the race, but I decided, “You know what? I’m gonna run.” As much because I wanted to continue Representative Ryan’s legacy, but also, for therapy. And over that first weekend, for the first time, I didn’t feel pain. And it wasn’t that I wasn’t in pain, it’s just that I was other-directed. I ran for the seat and lost. But 29 years later, I won it.

I still carry two bullets: one is in my thoracic region and one is in my pelvic region. A year after it happened, I felt a lump under my arm, and the doctor thought, “Oh my god, she’s got cancer, but let’s take an X-ray.” One of the bullets in my arm had gravitated. I went into surgery and the FBI took the bullet, they did ballistics testing on it, and returned it in a little plastic pouch with evidence tape wrapped around it. That was an unfortunate souvenir of the experience.

What is it like living with a gunshot wound?

We talk about people who are injured from gun violence — look at Gabby Giffords. Her life will never be the same. She is probably getting the best medical care in the world. Her speech now is coming back. But look how many years that’s been. You’re never the same. You’re never the same physically, obviously; you’re never the same emotionally.

The issue of gun safety is very much on the political radar in the wake of this year’s high-profile shootings, and Democratic presidential candidates are suddenly competing to own the issue. Do you expect to see any action in Congress? 

I’m not willing to get too jubilant right now because I have seen it wax and wane so much. The traditional ways that we have expected to turn this issue around aren’t going to work. It’s people taking to the streets, it’s people using this as a litmus test for their votes, it’s doing something unorthodox, like buying a gun company.

By some estimates, there are 310 million guns in circulation. Are we past the point of no return?

Guns are part of our culture. For instance, after Newtown, I did three gun buybacks, and I was astonished by what was collected. We had machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, and guns with the serial numbers scratched off. And I remember talking to this one gentleman — there were lines of people in their cars driving up at these gun buybacks — I said, “Thank you for bringing your gun in,” and he says to me, “It didn’t seem to make any sense that we had it. We got this as a wedding present.” That’s something ingrained. It’s something that speaks more about their First Amendment rights, or their rights to not have the government engaged in their lives.

I have East Palo Alto in my district. In 1992, it was the murder capital of the country. It still has a higher murder rate than the national average, but it’s come down dramatically. So I go to one school and I’m talking to juniors and seniors. These are all kids that go to school from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Their parents have to be committed to their kids going to college. These are going to be achievers in our world. We start talking about gun violence and they say to me, “Of course I’m going to carry a gun. I have to do it for defense.” You spew out the numbers of how much more likely it’s going to be that that gun’s going to be used either accidentally or in a fit of temper or anger if it’s in your home, but in that environment, it is a survival tool.

Which parts of the larger gun violence story do you think the media and the public tend to overlook?  

I want to know about success stories. I really thought after Newtown that we — here you have small children who were assassinated. You had parents in pain coming to Congress. I met with some of them. Their only child. And yet they’ve used all of their strength and pain to come to Congress to plead with members to do just the most modest of things.

[This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]

[Photo: Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images]