WASHINGTON — Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords said “the time is now” for Congress to take action on guns as shooting victims, lawmakers and gun rights advocates came face-to-face for the first time since the Dec. 14 killings in Newtown, Conn.
“Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important,” Giffords said in a strong though halting voice at the start of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday. “Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something.
“It will be hard, but the time is now,” said Giffords, 42. “You must act. Be bold, be courageous; Americans are counting on you.”
Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head from point-blank range by by Jared Lee Loughner on Jan. 8, 2011, at a constituent event in Tucson.
Congress is debating ways to curb gun violence after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown that killed 20 children and six school employees. President Barack Obama backs a ban on sales of assault weapons, a proposal that faces opposition in Congress even as a majority of the public supports it.
The hearing centered on the efficacy of background checks more than initiatives to limit assault weapons or their high- capacity feeding devices.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary Committee chairman, led Democrats in asking gun advocates to explain why they oppose a stronger background check system to keep assault weapons out of the hands of criminals.
Wayne LaPierre, chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association, and Republicans including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, countered by saying current laws aren’t being properly enforced.
“We’ve got to get in the real world on what works and what doesn’t work,” LaPierre said.
“You miss the point completely,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told LaPierre, noting a stronger background check policy will keep criminals from getting guns in the first place.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has introduced a bill to ban certain assault weapons and limit high-capacity magazines to 10 rounds.
“We can’t have a totally armed society,” said Feinstein, whose bill would ban 158 types of assault weapons. It would exempt more than 2,000 weapons by make and model, she said.
LaPierre said solutions that work include teaching responsible gun ownership, armed security in schools and prosecuting criminals.
More gun-control laws are “not a serious solution to reducing crime” while existing laws aren’t enforced, he said. In 2011, federal weapons prosecutions per capita were down 35 percent from their peak during the previous administration, he said.
“Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals,” LaPierre said. “Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families.”
Another witness at the hearing was Mark Kelly, an astronaut and the husband of Giffords, a three-term lawmaker who resigned from Congress a year ago to focus on her recovery. The couple founded a gun-control advocacy group called Americans for Responsible Solutions.
In 15 seconds, Loughner, the man who shot Giffords, emptied a magazine containing 33 bullets. He was tackled as he attempted to reload.
Kelly urged strengthening the background check system, saying 80 percent of criminals reported obtaining their weapons through private sales with no such checks.
“Gabby is a gun owner, and I’m a gun owner,” Kelly told the committee. “The breadth and complexity of the problem of gun violence is great, but it is not an excuse for inaction.
“Dangerous people with weapons specifically designed to inflict maximum lethality upon others have turned every corner of our society into places of carnage and gross human loss,” Kelly said.
Jim Johnson, police chief in Baltimore County, Md., pressed for requiring background checks for all firearms purchases, limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds and renewing the 1994 assault weapon ban that expired in 2004.
Johnson, who has been in law enforcement for 35 years, said he has “seen an explosion in firepower” since the assault weapons ban expired and that “victims are being riddled with multiple gunshots.” He said “high-capacity magazines are not used for hunting” and “do not belong in our homes.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said having a 15-round magazine “can make the difference in protecting a family” that is facing more than one attacker.
Leahy, in his opening statement, advocated a stronger background check policy for gun buyers.
Gun store owners in Vermont “wonder why others who sell guns do not have to follow the same protective rules,” Leahy said. “Why should we not try to plug the loopholes in the law” that allow criminals and the mentally ill to buy guns without background checks, he asked.
“What responsible gun owner objects” to a background check system, Leahy asked. At the same time, he said, the Constitution’s Second Amendment, which guarantees a right to bear arms, “will remain secure.”
None of the Republicans appeared to endorse tightening background checks during the hearing. The committee’s top Republican, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, said that “we all want sensible actions,” without advocating any specific new gun-related measures.
“The deaths in Newtown should not be used to put forward every gun-control measure that’s been floating around for years,” Grassley said. “The problem is greater than guns alone.”
He cited a re-examination of mental health laws and violent video games. Grassley said limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines “can be circumvented by carrying more guns.”
LaPierre repeatedly sidestepped questions about the NRA’s position on background checks should be required for purchases at gun shows.
“The fact is the law right now is a failure” because it isn’t being enforced and criminals aren’t being prosecuted, said LaPierre. States also aren’t providing the records of the mentally ill, he said.
Loughner purchased his gun legally and underwent a background examination, though it didn’t cover evidence “that would have prevented him from buying a gun through a background check system,” Kelly said.