More than a month after an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 dead, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday held a three-hour hearing on gun control to examine possible new federal restrictions on "assault-style" weapons, background check enforcement and banning high capacity magazines.
The hearing comes amid calls from President Barack Obama to enact the most sweeping gun laws passed in a century. The legislation that followed, introduced by California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has been met with fierce opposition from gun-rights advocates.
For the hearing, both sides brought in their most high-profile activists, notably former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, and National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.
The hearing began with a statement read by Giffords, who sustained a gunshot to the head in a January 2011 Tucson town hall shooting. Speaking slowly but forcefully, Giffords urged committee members to be "bold" and "courageous" in dealing with gun violence. Giffords and Kelly founded a nonprofit, Americans for Responsible Solutions, to promote gun reform following the shooting that severely injured Giffords and 12 others, and killed six.
"This is an important conversation for our children. For our communities. For Democrats and Republicans. Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important," Giffords said. "Violence is a big problem. 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. Thank you."
After her brief appearance, Giffords was escorted out of the committee room.
Kelly's testimony followed, in which he called called for action to increase background checks on gun purchasers and to remove limitations on public health organizations that collect gun violence data. He also urged the enactment of a federal gun trafficking statute that increases penalties on illegal gun purchases.
"Our rights are paramount. But our responsibilities are serious," Kelly said. "And as a nation we are not taking responsibility for the gun rights our Founding Fathers conferred upon us. Gabby and I are pro-gun ownership. We are anti-gun violence."
The hearing, which also included testimonies from Baltimore County Police Department Chief James Johnson, the NRA's LaPierre, Independent Women's Forum Senior Fellow Gayle Trotter and Denver University Law Professor David Kopel, focused on whether action should be taken in the wake of the mass shootings that have killed dozens in the past year. (During the meeting, a gunman in Phoenix, Arizona opened fire at an office complex, wounding three victims.)
While there was much division between the witnesses, particularly between Johnson and LaPierre, there appeared to be a consensus about including mental health records in the background check process and furthering education programs about the risks of gun ownership. Senators from both parties made clear that they had no intention to take away the constitutional right to a firearm.
"It is now settled law that the government is never going to take away Americans' guns. Progressives need not to accept this decision, but to endorse it," said New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer. "And it makes sense. You can't argue for an expansive reading of amendments like the First, Fourth and Fifth but see the Second Amendment through the pinhole of saying it only affects militias. At the same time, those on the pro-gun side must recognize no amendment is absolute."
During his much-anticipated testimony, LaPierre argued against increasing regulations on gun ownership.
"Proposing more gun control laws, while failing to enforce the thousands we already have, is not a serious solution to reducing crime," LaPierre said. "Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals. Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families."
LaPierre, whose organization has been on the defense in the aftermath of a string of deadly mass shootings, repeated his call for placing more armed guards in public schools—a call made in December after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. LaPierre argued that similar tragedies could be avoided with more officers on campuses.
"It’s time to throw an immediate blanket of security around our children. About a third of our schools have armed security already because it works," he said. "And that number is growing every day. Right now, state officials, local authorities and school districts in all 50 states are considering their own plans to protect children in their schools."
In response to calls for instituting deeper background checks, LaPierre said gun sellers should be allowed to search for histories of mental illness in gun purchasers, but argued against background checks at gun shows.
"When it comes to the issue of background checks, let’s be honest—background checks will never be 'universal' because criminals will never submit to them," he said.