WASHINGTON - Speaking in halting but forceful terms after her recovery from a near-fatal gunshot wound, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords implored Congress on Wednesday to enact tough new gun laws, saying "Americans are counting on you."
Gifford's surprise appearance was the emotional high point in the Senate Judiciary Committee's first hearing on guns since the child massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., last month.
The nationally televised hearing also afforded senators, including Minnesota Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, their first chance to directly question National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, the public face of the influential gun lobby. "Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals," LaPierre said in a counterpoint to Giffords. "Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families."
But in a day of passionate and occasionally testy clashes, a packed Senate hearing room settled into rapt silence as Giffords, flanked by her astronaut husband, retired Capt. Mark Kelly, delivered a slow but heartfelt appeal:
"Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important," said Giffords, who was critically wounded in the head during a mass shooting in Tucson two years ago that left six people dead. "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."
The hearing came as the White House announced that President Obama will travel to Minneapolis on Monday to meet with local leaders and law enforcement officials about his newly unveiled gun control plans. White House spokeswoman Joanna Rosholm said that "Minneapolis is a city that has taken important steps to reduce gun violence and foster a conversation in the community about what further action is needed." She said the president would be discussing "additional steps that can be taken at the federal level to reduce gun violence."
The Senate is considering a package of gun legislation recommended by the Obama administration that would ban many types of military-style assault weapons, limit high-capacity ammunition magazines and mandate federal background checks before all gun purchases, not just those in gun stores.
'Some of these loopholes'
But in a nod to the legal complexity of gun restrictions, much of the emphasis of lawmakers, lobbyists and advocates who appeared before them Wednesday was on expanding background checks, which many analysts consider the most politically saleable of the proposed gun measures.
Klobuchar pressed LaPierre on his opposition to background checks at gun shows, which account for an estimated 40 percent of gun sales. "My understanding is that when people buy guns, they do undergo a background check," she said. "We know that. We're simply trying to close some of these loopholes."
LaPierre said that very few guns used in crimes have been connected to gun shows or other types of licensed private sales. "Where criminals are getting their guns is the black market," he said. "They're stealing them. They're not getting them through gun shows."
LaPierre, in remarks echoed by many of the Republicans on the committee, argued for better enforcement of existing gun laws, which he maintains has been lagging under Obama. New laws and background checks, he said, would lead to a "federal nightmare bureaucracy" that criminals would simply ignore.
Republicans focused on Second Amendment gun rights, self-defense, overburdened law enforcement and what some call a culture of violence reinforced in movies, television and video games. "The problem is greater than just guns alone," said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the panel.
'Two reasonable Americans'
Democrats, backed by the testimony of Giffords' husband, who talked at length, portrayed a society awash in increasingly powerful weapons of limited utility for recreation, hunting or self-defense.
"We are simply two reasonable Americans who have said 'enough,'" Kelly said. "When dangerous people get guns, we are all vulnerable."
While recent mass shootings have built some consensus on the need to focus on access to guns by the mentally ill, Franken also had a warning: "I want to be careful that we don't stigmatize mental illness," he said, noting that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.
Franken did not address LaPierre at all and focused his first question instead on a bill he is introducing Thursday to expand access to mental health services in schools.
He also cited the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's efforts to improve the nation's mental health system, and he delivered a personal message to the families of the Newtown massacre: "Minnesotans have you in our thoughts and our prayers," he said.
Franken and Klobuchar recognized the presence of Miya Rahamim, the daughter of Accent Signage Systems owner Reuven Rahamim, who was killed along with four others at his Minneapolis business in September.
Franken also acknowledged members of the Ojibwe Red Lake reservation in Minnesota who traveled to Newtown to share their experiences of the 2005 mass shooting at their high school.
Klobuchar and Franken stood to greet Giffords as she entered the hearing room from a back door opposite from where members of the public were lined up. Uniformed Capitol security officers ringed the public gallery, with orders from the committee chairman, Democrat Pat Leahy of Vermont, to expel anybody who disrupted the hearing.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.