WASHINGTON – 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 on Wednesday, 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 articulate, combative spokesman.
At one point, a female gun-rights advocate told a Democratic senator that he could not understand the appeal of a high-capacity ammunition magazine because “you are a large man” who doesn’t feel as vulnerable as a woman.
But by the end, 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 some kind of 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.
The forum began with reminders of Jan. 8, 2011, when gunman Jared Loughner shot Giffords at an event in a Tucson, Ariz. parking lot. She survived, partially blind and paralyzed in her right arm. Six others in the crowd 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.”
Kelly, and several Democrats on the committee, advocated expanding background checks so that they covered all gun purchases. But the NRA’s LaPierre said such a strategy would accomplish little.
Kelly also discussed the idea of limiting the size of ammunition magazines. He said that 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?
But, in opposition, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked whether 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 the scene.
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?”
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.