WASHINGTON — Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords told her one-time colleagues. Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something.
It would be hard, but the time is now. You must act.
Her words, read from a single, handwritten page, were among the camera-ready scenes as the Senate began hearings on gun control Wednesday, in a charged atmosphere with each side reaching for emotional force.
The former congresswoman, still severely handicapped after being shot in the head two years ago at an outdoor appearance in her Tucson, Ariz., district, spoke for barely a minute, breaking the traditional protocol that calls for senators to make opening statements before witnesses give testimony.
Then she made her way from the room, leaving behind her husband, retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, a former space shuttle astronaut. In a reminder of the pervasiveness of gun violence in this country, Kelly informed senators that three people had just been wounded by a gunman at an office building in Phoenix.
At the opposite end of a long, polished table sat the lead witness for the opposing side, National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. He and Kelly barely interacted save for a brief handshake at the hearings close.
The space between the two could have served as a metaphor for much of the hearing, where the formal politeness of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room did little to mask the continued wide division over gun legislation.
Democrats called for stronger laws to limit the sale of guns; Republicans insisted that existing laws were being under-enforced and questioned the need for new ones.
The shootings in Tucson and Newtown, Conn., are terrible tragedies, said the senior Republican on the panel, Iowas Sen. Charles Grassley, but they should not be used to put forward every gun control measure that has been floating around for years.
Off stage, some senators have begun to move toward agreement on at least one part of the gun package pushed by President Barack Obama a measure to tighten the current system of background checks for gun purchases.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is crafting a background checks bill, announced in the hearing he is having productive conversations with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, including a good number with high NRA ratings.
That agreement does not extend to the NRA, itself, as LaPierre made clear.
Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals, he said.
Later, he specifically rejected the idea of universal background checks for gun purchases. My problem with background checks is youre never going to get criminals to go through universal background checks, he said, prompting a heated exchange with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin.
Mr. LaPierre, thats the point, Durbin interjected. The criminals wont go to purchase the guns, because there will be a background check. Well stop them from the original purchase.
LaPierre was more amenable to prosecution of straw purchasers people who buy guns for others, most often those prohibited from buying guns themselves. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Durbin introduced a bill last week to combat gun trafficking. Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., unveiled another gun trafficking proposal Wednesday.
While prospects for expanded background checks and tougher trafficking laws have grown, the prospects for an assault weapons ban, eagerly sought by some gun control advocates, seem dim.
Leahy notably did not endorse the ban in his comments during the hearing. Nor did Kelly, who instead called for a careful and civil conversation about the lethality of firearms we permit to be legally bought and sold in this country while reminding senators of the toll that mass shootings have taken.
Gabbys gift for speech is a distant memory Kelly said. She struggles to walk, and she is partially blind. But, he added, we arent here as victims. Were speaking to you today as Americans.
He and Giffords have our firearms for the same reasons that millions of others have guns, for hunting and target shooting, he said. But rights demand responsibility. After the hearing, Giffords and Kelly met with Obama at the White House.