WASHINGTON - In a dramatic appeal, wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords urged Congress on Wednesday to enact tougher gun control legislation, saying, "too many children are dying."
"Speaking is difficult. But I need to say something important," Giffords said haltingly from a Senate Judiciary Committee witness chair at Congress' first gun control hearing since 20 elementary school children were shot to death in Newtown, Conn., late last year.
"Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you," she said.
Gifford was not on the publicly released list of witnesses, and in an unusual show of respect, members of the committee greeted her warmly outside the hearing room as she and her husband, former astronaut and retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, made their way inside. The former congresswoman was grievously wounded in an assassination attempt in Tucson, Ariz., a little more than two years ago, and has become a public advocate for gun control.
In the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., massacre, President Barack Obama has issued a call for gun control legislation.
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.
The prospects for Senate passage are not strong, in part because of opposition from the NRA and in part from a reluctance among rural-state Democrats to support limitations on firearms.
Republicans pledged to listen carefully, and no more.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Tuesday that reviewing the issue was timely.
"But I'm a strong supporter of the Second Amendment," he said citing the constitutional provision that guarantees the right to bear arms, "and I don't intend to change."
The chairman of the panel, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in his prepared opening statement Wednesday 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.
"Let us forego sloganeering, demagoguery and partisan recriminations," he said. "This is too important for that."
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."
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.
Giffords underwent a lengthy rehabilitation process and has regained some ability to speak, but has retired from Congress. A gun owner, she and her husband Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, have formed a political action committee called Americans for Responsible Solutions to back lawmakers who support tighter gun restrictions.
In testimony prepared for the hearing but released Tuesday, Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, said such steps had failed in the past. He instead voiced support for better enforcement of existing laws, beefing up school security and strengthening the government's ability to keep guns from mentally unstable people.
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.
"Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals," LaPierre said in his statement. "Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families."
While not yielding on
specifics, much of LaPierre's statement had a milder tone than other remarks the NRA has made since Newtown.
That includes an NRA television ad calling Obama an "elitist hypocrite" for voicing doubts about having armed school guards while his own children are protected that way at their school. While Obama's children have Secret Service protection, officials at their school have said its own guards don't carry guns.
Feinstein said Tuesday that she will hold her own hearing on gun control because she was unhappy that three of the five witnesses testifying Wednesday are "skewed against us."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday he would wait to see what legislation Democrats produce. Republican leaders of the GOP-run House have expressed similar sentiments.