WASHINGTON — Led by halting but powerful words from severely wounded former Rep. Gabby Giffords, a Senate hearing on gun violence proved emotional but inconclusive.
Even as the hearing before the Judiciary Committee was under way, a multiple shooting occurred in a Phoenix business complex, and news broke that a teenage majorette who performed at the inaugural ceremonies was shot in Chicago as she sought shelter from the rain.
“Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important,” said Giffords, a gun owner who has changed her mind about gun-control laws since being shot through the head nearly two years ago by a deranged gunman in a Tucson mall where she was holding a town hall meeting.
The hearing was the first since a gunman opened fire at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 children and six teachers.
Giffords struggled against her disabilities, which left her partially blind, paralyzed in her right arm, and impaired in speech and gait.
“Violence is a big problem,” she said. “Too many children are dying – too many children. 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.”
California Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s effort to revive the assault weapons ban came under attack from hostile witnesses led by National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre and failed to win an endorsement from the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Feinstein’s original 1994 ban expired in 2004 and shows little traction in the face of opposition from a bevy of rural Democrats as well as Republicans.
Feinstein was displeased by the witness line-up and promised to hold a separate hearing on her bill.
But Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York was optimistic that a narrower bill that imposes universal background checks on all gun sales, closing the gun-show loophole, might pass, while meeting Supreme Court tests.
“Not including guns when discussing mass killings is like not including cigarettes when discussing lung cancer,” Schumer said. Legislation would recognize an individual right to bear arms, but that “it comes with limitations, like every amendment. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech. It’s hallowed, but you still can’t falsely shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater or traffic in child pornography. Those are reasonable limits on the First Amendment. The Second Amendment has sensible limits, too.”
LaPierre and every Republican on the committee insisted that numerous existing gun laws are weakly enforced, the mental health system is in tatters, and that creating more laws would do more harm to Americans’ self-defense against criminals and madmen than it would save lives.
Citing the Founding Fathers’ insistence on the right to bear arms, LaPierre said what many people fear today “is being abandoned by their government if a tornado hits, if a hurricane hits, if a riot occurs, that they’re going to be out there alone and the only way they’re going to protect themselves in the cold, in the dark, when they’re vulnerable, is with a firearm.” He called firearms necessary to “fundamental human survival.”
Baltimore County Police Chief James Johnson, representing the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, called the idea of citizens armed against a lawless state “creepy” and “scary.”
Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, insisted that universal background checks of gun buyers, limits on high-capacity magazines and better referral of the mentally ill to federal databases are common-sense reforms that might have saved his wife and a 9-year-old child, among other victims of the 2011 shooting.
“If we close the gun-show loophole, if we require private sellers to complete a background check and we get those 121,000 records (of court-confirmed mentally ill in Arizona that had not been submitted to the background check system), we will prevent gun crime,” said Kelly. “That is an absolute truth. It would have happened in Tucson.”