WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords made a passionate plea to her former colleagues in Congress, opening a senate hearing by telling lawmakers they must do something now to stop gun violence.
Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who suffered a severe head wound in a 2011 Tucson shooting spree that killed six people, appeared briefly at the start of Wednesday’s hearing.
“Too many children are dying,” Giffords said during the first Senate hearing on gun violence since the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. “We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act.”
“Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you,” she added.
Giffords underwent a lengthy rehabilitation process and has regained some ability to speak, but has retired from Congress. She and her husband have formed a political action committee called Americans for Responsible Solutions to back lawmakers who support tighter gun restrictions.
Her husband said that while curbing gun violence is a complex problem, it is no excuse for inaction by lawmakers.
Former astronaut Mark Kelly told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he and his wife are gun owners who support the right to own guns. But he says Congress must strengthen laws to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from getting guns.
Kelly said he and his wife are “two reasonable Americans” who believe it is time for Congress to act.
“We believe whether you call yourself pro-gun or anti-gun violence or both that you can work together to pass laws that save lives,” Kelly said.
The hearing is a response to the Dec. 14 shooting rampage that killed 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and transformed gun control into a top-tier issue in the capital.
In the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., massacre, President Barack Obama has issued a call for gun control legislation.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are discussing an assault weapons ban and strengthening background checks.
“When I buy firearms in Vermont, I go through the background check, I would expect everybody else to,” said the chairman of the panel, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Leahy, D-Vt., said that 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.
National Rifle Association executive vice President Wayne LaPierre is representing the powerful gun lobby at the hearing.
“Let’s be honest, background checks will never be universal because criminals will never submit to them,” LaPierre said.
LaPierre said proposing more gun laws while failing to enforce the thousands already in place in the country is not a solution to gun violence.
“Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals, nor do we believe that the government should dictate what we can loftly own and use to protect our families,” LaPierre said.
While gun control is getting new attention on Capitol Hill, getting new laws passed is still an uphill battle. Republicans as well as many Democratic senators are strong supporters of gun rights.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat and member of the committee, has introduced a bill to ban numerous assault-style weapons as well as high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Sen. Chuck Schumer is behind Feinstein’s bill, but he isn’t optimistic it will pass.
“I think we’re going to give it the old college try because you can’t have month after month after month, these kinds of shootings,” Schumer said. “It’s just too tragic and too awful.”
Despite the horrific Newtown slayings, it remains unclear whether those advocating limits on gun availability will be able to overcome resistance by the NRA and lawmakers from states where gun ownership abounds. Question marks include not just many Republicans but also Democratic senators facing re-election in red-leaning states in 2014. They include Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
Knowing that television cameras would beam images of the hearing nationally, both sides were drumming up supporters to attend Wednesday’s session.
A page on an NRA-related website urged backers to arrive two hours early to get seats, bring no signs and dress appropriately. The liberal BoldProgressives.org urged its members to attend, saying the NRA “will try to pack the room with their supporters to deceive Congress into believing they are mainstream.”
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama proposed a package that includes banning assault weapons, requiring background checks on all firearms purchases and limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.
The massacre in Newtown has also set off a national discussion about mental health care, with everyone from law enforcement leaders to the gun industry urging policymakers to focus on the issue as a way to help prevent similar mass shootings. The issue of mental health has arisen in four recent mass shootings, including Sandy Hook, the Tucson shooting, the incident in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last year and Virginia Tech in 2007.
LaPierre said the country’s mental health system is broken.
“We need to look at the full range of mental health issues from early detection, the treatment, to civil commitment laws, to privacy laws that needlessly prevent mental health records from being included in the national instant check system, LaPierre said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., indicated that whatever the committee produced wouldn’t necessarily be the final product, saying the package would be debated by the full Senate and senators would be allowed to propose “whatever amendments they want that deal with this issue.”
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