For Danny Hernandez, the shootings on Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., that critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) were a life-changing moment during which many say he demonstrated unparalleled heroism.
Hernandez, who’s gay and had worked as an intern for Giffords for just five days at the time of the shooting, is credited with providing the first aid that saved her life.
In an interview with Washington Blade, Hernandez, 20, a political science student at the University of Arizona, said he was tasked with signing in visitors at the “Congress on Your Corner” event when the shooting began.
“About 10 minutes after the event started, I heard gunshots,” he said. “I heard someone say ‘Gun!’ I ran toward where the congresswoman would be.”
Giffords, who was shot in the forehead, was among the 20 people shot by 22-year-old gunman Jared Loughlin, who used a semi-automatic pistol with an extended magazine during his attack. Six people were killed, including five who died at the scene and a 9-year-old girl who died at the hospital.
“The attitude that I had,” Hernandez said, “was trying to make sure that those who had been injured were going to be OK, so to try to provide whatever first aid I could until someone else could come in and take over.”
When he reached Giffords, Hernandez said he noticed others had been shot, and said his first priority was to determine who was still alive.
“Once I saw that the congresswoman was still alive, but she had been severely injured, she became my first priority, not because of her position, but because of the severity of her wounds,” Hernandez said.
After assessing Giffords’s injuries, Hernandez propped her up against his chest to keep her from asphyxiating on her own blood. Once she was able to breathe again, Hernandez applied pressure to stem the blood loss as much as possible.
Medics arrived on the scene to take Giffords and others to the University Medical Center in Arizona. Doctors are now optimistic about her recovery. The first aid provided by Hernandez, who said his only training was through a certified nursing assistant program in high school, is widely seen as responsible for saving her life.
Amid the media frenzy and shock over the shootings, Hernandez has emerged a figure of hope after rushing into danger to save Giffords. In the days since the shooting, Hernandez has appeared on national TV for interviews with CNN, the “Today” show and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
Back home in Arizona, Hernandez has been praised for his actions. The Arizona State Legislature on Monday gave him a standing ovation after Gov. Jan Brewer (R) applauded his deeds during her State of the State address.
“Daniel Hernandez, a University of Arizona junior showed no fear in the face of gunfire,” Brewer said. “His quick action in going to Gabby Giffords’s aid likely saved her life.”
Hernandez said he was “very proud” to receive the honor afforded to him by the state legislature and the Arizona governor, but expressed modesty over his accomplishment.
“I’m a little press shy, and trying to control it as much as possible because the only thing I really care about right now is making sure that those people who survived get better and that we give support to their family members,” he said.
Hernandez also demurred when asked by the Blade whether he thinks he should be labeled a hero for his actions.
“Using words like ‘hero,’ I think, is kind of not the appropriate word because although those who did step in and took some action were brave, the real heroes are the people like Congresswoman Giffords … and the people who dedicated their lives to public service,” Hernandez said.
Dedicating much of her life to public service, Giffords was elected to the Arizona State Legislature in 2000 before becoming a congresswoman in 2007. Seen by many as a liberal for her support for abortion rights, health care reform and the stimulus package, Giffords beat her Republican opponent, Tea Party candidate Jesse Kelly, to win re-election in November 2010.
Hernandez said he wanted to work for Giffords because he’s been following her since she was a state legislator. After a stint working on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008, Hernandez said he had many interactions with Giffords and they became friends. After she won re-election last year, he decided to go to work for her.
“She was just an impressive person whom I always admired,” Hernandez said. “And in November of 2010, after she won her seat here again, one of the first things I did after she won was to make sure I applied to an internship with her office because I wanted to continue working with her as much as possible.”
On LGBT issues, Giffords’s record is mostly positive. The Human Rights Campaign gave her a score of 81 out of 100 for support for pro-gay legislation in the 110th Congress.
Giffords voted for hate crimes protections legislation and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” She additionally was a co-sponsor of a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act. She was not a co-sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act or legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.
Even though he has a background in political science, Hernandez said LGBT issues haven’t been one of his priorities and said he’s more interested in public service in general.
“That’s why I worked for her office, not because of any one issue but because I wanted to be involved and wanted to be involved in the political process and trying to help others,” he said.
The degree to which political discourse in America influenced the shootings has emerged as a central discussion topic. Many pundits have questioned whether right-wing rhetoric against health care reform, which Giffords’ supported, contributed to the action that nearly took her life.
Giffords was among 20 members of Congress targeted by Sarah Palin on her website for supporting health care reform. Palin’s site included a map with Giffords’s district depicted in crosshairs. The map has been removed from Palin’s site.
John Aravosis, the gay editor of Americablog, said Palin “shares a great deal of responsibility” for feeding what he called “America’s culture of violence.”
“Just go to Western Europe, walk around in any capital at 2 or 3 in the morning, then try to do the same in Washington, D.C.,” Aravosis said. “It’s different in America.”
Aravosis said conservative leaders like Palin — as well as personalities like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh — tap into the culture of violence in the hopes that it will help Republicans win elections.
Among other things, Aravosis accused conservatives of contributing to violence by saying health care reform would lead to death panels for the elderly and insisting that President Obama pals around with terrorists.
“It’s the GOP that’s cheapened political discourse, since the founding of conservative talk radio, and things only went downhill when they created Fox,” Aravosis said. “I have no idea what can be done about it, other than shaming them, and hoping they learn to restrain themselves.”
Hernandez said he also believed the shootings show that political discourse in the country is “something that needs to change.”
“I think, if there’s anything that can be learned from this tragic incident, it’s that we need to make sure that we cut down on the fiery rhetoric,” he said. “Instead of trying to tear each other down and work on destructive criticism on both sides, we need to kind of come together as a nation regardless of every factor and try to work constructively to move this nation forward.”
In a video posted online Wednesday, Palin disputed the notion that conservative political discourse in some way contributed to the violence last week in Tucson and said people were making “irresponsible statements” to assign blame for the event.
“It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions,” she said. “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own and they begin and end with the criminals who committed them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.”
Asked whether he thinks Palin had a role in prompting the shootings, Hernandez said he’s not part of the investigation and doesn’t know what the causes were.
“I think the only thing that I can say is making sure that, in the future, we cut down on any kind of rhetoric, especially things that can be seen as something that may cause some violence in the future,” he said.
What does the future hold for Hernandez? He said he wants to pursue a role in public service and isn’t ruling anything out as part of that path.
“I don’t know in what capacity,” Hernandez said. “I’m not ruling anything out, but, right now, it’s too soon.”