WASHINGTON – Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords called on Congress to “be bold, be courageous” and take swift action to prevent gun violence, during a surprise appearance at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.
“Speaking is difficult but I need to say something important,” Giffords said to a hushed room at the outset of a hearing on gun-control measures. “Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children.”
Giffords, who was helped to the speaker’s table by her husband, spoke haltingly, still showing the signs of a gunshot wound to the head she suffered in a 2011 shooting in Tucson that killed six and wounded 12 others.
“You must act. Be bold, be courageous. Americans are counting on you,” Giffords said.
It was the emotional beginning to a heated four-hour hearing that pitted differing visions of gun-control against each other, with one side calling for new regulations and gun-rights advocates urging stricter enforcement of existing laws.
The hearing was sparked by a shooting spree in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school last month that killed 26, most of them children. It was interrupted by news that a gunman had opened fire in a Phoenix office building Wednesday, killing one and wounding two others.
The Newtown shooting produced a sweeping package of gun-control and violence-prevention measures from the White House, as well as separate bills by many of the Democrats on the committee. The proposals call for broader background checks on gun buyers, a renewed ban on assault-style weapons and a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, among other measures.
But Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, told the committee that more regulation would only burden responsible gun owners. He said banning certain weapons did not help reduce crime from 1994 to 2004 and it would not work now.
“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.”
He said a universal background check system would be an “unmanageable, federal nightmare” and ineffective because criminals would work around it.
Rather than regulation, LaPierre and most of the Republican senators on the commitee called for greater enforcement of the current gun laws and the introduction of armed security in schools.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., countered that background checks kept 2 million people from buying guns between 1994 and 2009, and cited a poll that 74 percent of NRA members support stronger background checks.
One area where both sides approached agreement was on the need for greater mental health care, to help treat or screen out people who might commit such attacks.
Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, testified that mental health treatment might have kept Jared Lee Loughner from committing the Tucson attack on Giffords and others.
He said the case of Loughner – an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who passed a background check to purchase his murder weapon – demonstrates how desperately mental health care needs to be improved.
Kelly also testified in favor of universal background checks and banning assault weapons. He and Giffords have launched Americans for Responsible Solutions, an organization dedicated to fighting gun violence.
Kelly emphasized his support of Second Amendment rights, while insisting steps could be taken to prevent tragedies like the one that partially paralyzed his wife.
“Gabby and I are pro-gun ownership. We are anti-gun violence,” Kelly said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., called the lack of mental health care the “nexus” of all the national high-profile shootings and said focusing on it could prevent future tragedies.
Flake asked Baltimore County Police Chief James Johnson, one of five witnesses, why mental health records for certain at-risk individuals were not entered into the background check system as required. Johnson said confusion in the medical community about what records could be entered was part the problem.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., recalling the 20 elementary students killed in the Newtown attack, said it is time to take action.
“I promise this time there will be change,” Blumenthal said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and chairman of the committee, said he hoped the senators could build consensus around this issue. He said he expects the committee can take action on gun-violence prevention measures in February.
“We want to put an end to the violence that breaks all our hearts,” Leahy said.