Updated Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 10:46 PM
She spoke just 72 words, reading slowly and carefully from a lined sheet where a speech therapist had transcribed her thoughts. One of the many things former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has lost is the congressional luxury to be long-winded.
“You must act. Be bold. Be courageous,” Giffords testified Wednesday in her first formal remarks on Capitol Hill since an attack that nearly killed her two years ago. “Americans are counting on you.”
Giffords was the first witness called by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a hearing that served as the congressional kickoff for a bitter fight about guns.
Other witnesses included Giffords’ husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who has joined her in a push to tighten gun laws. And, at the other end of the witness table and on the other side of the issue, Wayne LaPierre — the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) articulate, combative spokesman in Washington.
Four hours later, a lot had been said, and very little had been settled. The memory of Giffords’ appearance gradually lost its solemn hold on the participants. At one point, a female gun-rights advocate told a Democratic senator that he can’t understand the appeal of a high-capacity ammunition magazine because, “You are a large man” who doesn’t feel as vulnerable as a woman.
By the end of the hearing, one thing seemed clearer. A consensus among lawmakers is emerging behind an expansion of background checks for gun buyers, a proposal with far more bipartisan support than a reinstatement of the federal assault-weapons ban.
“Universal background checks is a proven, effective step we can take to reduce gun violence,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said at the hearing. “And I believe it has a good chance of passing.
The purpose of Wednesday’s hearing was to shape gun legislation that can pass a splintered Congress. Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he expects the panel to craft a bill by next month. Schumer has led the charge on mandating background checks for all gun purchases, closing a “loophole” that exempts sales at gun shows. Also Wednesday, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., unveiled a new bipartisan measure to make gun trafficking a federal crime.
Opponents of gun control told stories about homeowners shooting intruders in terrified self-defense. Supporters talked about the massacre in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 elementary-school students, six school staffers, the shooter and his mother dead in December. And they talked about more recent violence: a shooting in Chicago on Tuesday that killed a 15 year-old girl who had performed at the inauguration last week, and a shooting Wednesday in Phoenix that killed one and injured two at an office building.
The forum began with reminders of Jan. 8, 2011, when gunman Jared Loughner shot Giffords at an event in Tucson, Ariz. She survived, partially blind and paralyzed in her right arm. Six others died.
“Speaking is difficult. But I need to say something important,” Giffords said, after walking through a packed, but nearly silent, hearing room to her seat. Friends said she had practiced her remarks again and again. “Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something.”
When Giffords finished, she was guided by Kelly out a back door. She watched some of the hearing on TV, and the couple later met with President Obama in the Oval Office.
Kelly, and several Democrats on the committee, advocated expanding background checks so they covered all gun purchases. But the NRA’s LaPierre said such a strategy would accomplish little.
“So, we’re going to make all those law-abiding people go through the system, and then we aren’t going to prosecute any of the bad guys if they do catch one. And it — none of it makes any sense in the real world.”
At that point, Leahy cut LaPierre off, because the time for that period of questioning had expired. As it happened, the next senator up was Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who challenged LaPierre.
“Mr. LaPierre, that’s the point. The criminals won’t go to purchase the guns because there will be a background check,” Durbin said. “We’ll stop them from the original purchase. You miss that point completely.”
At another point, Leahy noted that LaPierre had previously supported universal background checks when he testified at a similar House hearing in 1999.
Kelly also discussed the idea of limiting the size of ammunition magazines. He said Loughner had carried a 33-round magazine — and was only stopped when he paused to reload and fumbled a new magazine. What if, Kelly said, he could only have carried a 10-round magazine? Might the rampage have ended sooner?
In opposition, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked if he was “unreasonable” for not supporting a ban on semiautomatic weapons, or limiting high-capacity magazines.
Graham cited a recent incident in which a Georgia woman used a six-shot pistol to shoot a home invader: the man was hit five times, Graham said, but was still able to flee.
Turning to Kelly, Graham asked: “Put your family member in that situation. Would I be a reasonable American to want my family to have the 15-round magazine in a semi-automatic weapon to make sure that if there’s two intruders, she doesn’t run out of bullets? Am I an unreasonable person for saying that in that situation, the 15-round magazine makes sense?”
Kelly did not respond aloud. Graham gave his own answer: “Well, I’ll say I don’t believe I am.”
There was relatively little support expressed for reinstating the assault-weapons ban that expired in 2004. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has filed a bill to do that, but she spent little time discussing it during the hearing.
Washington Post staff writers
Philip Rucker, Sari Horwitz and Julie Tate contributed to this report.
J. Scott Applewhite / The Associated Press
Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously injured in a mass shooting in Tucson two years ago, arrives on Capitol Hill to speak before a hearing on what lawmakers should do to curb gun violence.