Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously injured in the mass shooting that killed six people two years ago, arrives on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to speak before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence. She is escorted by her husband, Mark Kelly, right, Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., second from left, and the committee’s Ranking Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, left.
WASHINGTON — Severely wounded and still recovering, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords begged lawmakers at an emotional hearing Wednesday to act quickly to curb firearms because “Americans are counting on you.”
Giffords’ 80-word plea was the day’s most riveting moment, delivered in a halting but forceful voice two years after the Arizona Democrat suffered a head wound in a Tucson shooting spree that killed six people — and two months after 20 first-graders and six women were slain by a gunman in Newtown, Conn. Giffords retired from Congress last year.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he hoped his panel would write gun control legislation next month, though he did not specify what it might contain. In his opening remarks, he voiced support for requiring broader background checks to help keep criminals and the mentally ill from obtaining firearms.
At the same hearing, a top official of the National Rifle Association rejected Democratic proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Under questioning from Leahy, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said that in a reversal his organization no longer supports universal background checks for gun purchasers as it did years ago.
“Back in ’99 you said, ‘No loopholes, nowhere,’” said Leahy, referring to testimony delivered more than a decade ago. “Now you do not support background checks for all.”
LaPierre said requiring background checks for all gun purchases would be ineffective because the Obama administration isn’t doing enough to enforce the law as it is.
Even if stronger background checks did identify a criminal, “as long as you let him go, you’re not keeping him from getting a gun and you’re not preventing him from getting to the next crime scene,” LaPierre said. He said poor enforcement is “a national disgrace.”
Leahy also has introduced legislation that would make it a federal crime for someone to purchase a gun for a person who would not be legally allowed to have one.
Giffords, in her brief appearance, focused on the carnage from armed assailants.
“Too many children are dying,” she said at the Judiciary Committee hearing. “Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now.”
Guiding her in and remaining to testify was Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut who is Giffords’ husband. The couple, who both own guns, have formed a political action committee called Americans for Responsible Solutions that backs lawmakers who support gun restrictions.
“We’re simply two reasonable Americans who realize we have a problem with gun violence and we need Congress to act,” Kelly said.
The hearing kicked off a year in which President Barack Obama and members of Congress are promising to make gun restrictions a top priority. Obama has already proposed requiring background checks for all gun sales and reviving both an assault weapons ban and a 10-round limit on the size of ammunition magazines, and several Democrats have introduced bills addressing those and other limitations.
Senators’ remarks during the hearing illustrated the gulf between the two parties on this issue.
Leahy said it is “a simple matter of common sense” that there should be a strengthening of background checks and that doing so would not threaten gun owners’ rights. The checks are currently required for gun purchases from licensed dealers but not at gun shows or other private transaction.
At the same time, he said, the Constitution’s Second Amendment “is secure and will remain secure and protection. ... No one can or will take those rights or our guns away.”
He added, “let us forgo sloganeering, demagoguery and partisan recriminations. This is too important for that.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, joined others in lauding Giffords but expressed little interest in curbing firearms.
“Unfortunately in Washington, emotion I think often leads to bad policies,” said Cruz, a freshman elected with strong tea party backing.
Republicans blamed the nation’s gun troubles on a list of maladies including a lack of civility, violent video games and insufficient attention to people with mental problems.
Giffords, a surprise witness, was helped to her chair as the hearing began by Leahy and others. She’d been working on her remarks for a week, but decided Tuesday eveningto deliver them, said Pia Carusone, her former chief of staff who is now executive director for Americans for Responsible Solutions.
In his own remarks, Kelly described the January 2011 attack on Giffords and others and described her battle to regain basic skills.
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