She spoke just 72 words, reading slowly and carefully from a lined sheet of paper where a speech therapist had transcribed her thoughts. One of the many things former House member Gabrielle Giffords has lost is the congressional luxury of being long-winded.
“You must act. Be bold. Be courageous,” Giffords testified Wednesday in her first formal remarks on Capitol Hill since a shooting that nearly killed her two years ago. “Americans are counting on you.”
Giffords (D-Ariz.) 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 her 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 — was Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s articulate, combative spokesman in Washington.
Four hours later, a lot had been said and very little had been settled. The memory of Giffords’s appearance gradually lost its solemn hold on the participants. 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 he is “a large man” who doesn’t feel as vulnerable as a woman.
But by the end, one thing seemed clearer: A consensus is emerging among lawmakers for 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 E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at the hearing. “And I believe it has a good chance of passing.”
The purpose of the hearing was to shape gun legislation that can pass a splintered Congress. Committee Chairman Patrick J. 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 firearms purchases, ending an exemption for sales at gun shows.
Also Wednesday, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) announced a new bipartisan measure to make gun trafficking a federal crime.
The hearing was a quiet — and mainly polite — discussion of violence.
Opponents of gun control told stories of homeowners shooting intruders in terrified self-defense. Supporters talked about the shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 elementary school students, six school staffers, the gunman and his mother dead in December. And they noted more recent violence: a shooting in Chicago on Tuesday that killed a 15-year-old girl who had come to Washington during the inaugural weekend, and a shooting Wednesday in Phoenix that injured at least three at an office building; it happened during the hearing.
The forum began with reminders of Jan. 8, 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner shot Giffords and 18 others at an event in a Tucson parking lot. She survived, partially blind and paralyzed in her right arm. Six in the crowd died.
“Speaking is difficult. But I need to say something important,” Giffords said, after walking through the 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, Kelly guided her out a back door. She watched some of the hearing on television, and the couple later met with President Obama in the Oval Office.
After she left, Giffords’s name was invoked more than 40 times, and the hearing focused on her charge: how, or whether, to do something now.
Kelly and several Democrats on the committee advocated expanding background checks so that they cover 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,” he said.
At that point, Leahy cut LaPierre off, because the time for that period of questioning had expired. The next senator up was Richard J. 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 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 stopped only when he paused to reload and fumbled a new magazine. What if, Kelly asked, he could have carried only a 10-round magazine? Might the rampage have ended sooner?