WASHINGTON - Agence France-Presse
Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (L) delivers her opening remarks while seated next to her husband, former U.S. Navy Captain Mark Kelly, during a hearing held by the Senate Judiciary committee about guns and violence on Capitol Hill in Washington. AFP photo
Ex-lawmaker and shooting victim Gabrielle Giffords made a dramatic appeal to Congress Wednesday, telling lawmakers "you must act" to find ways to reduce the epidemic of US
Democrat Giffords came face to face at a Senate hearing with leaders of the National Rifle Association, who reiterated their call for arming security forces at schools.
"Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying," said Giffords, a former congresswoman who was shot through the head two years ago at a massacre in her home state of Arizona.
"We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now," she said, told a hushed Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, speaking the slow, labored voice that has marked her speech since her recovery.
"You must act," she said, staring down the panel of senators before her, several of whom hugged her as she entered the hearing room. "Be bold, be courageous. Americans are counting on you." Escorted into the room by her husband, the former NASA
astronaut Mark Kelly, Giffords was a surprise witness at the year's first congressional hearing on the causes of and possible solutions for gun violence.
It comes six weeks after a gunman stormed into a school in Newtown, Connecticut and killed 20 small children and six adults.
The hearing pitted Giffords and Kelly against fellow witness Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president and the gun lobby's leading voice.
"Proposing more gun control laws -- while failing to enforce the thousands we already have -- is not a serious solution to reducing crime," LaPierre said in prepared testimony.
"Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals," he added. "Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families." The Newtown massacre has prompted a spirited national debate about gun rights, and led President Barack Obama to propose mandatory background checks for all gun purchases and reinstatement of an assault weapons ban.
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said he had reached across the aisle to draw up legislation requiring background checks on all gun sales and purchases and was "hopeful" that a Senate bill could be introduced soon.
"It's a simple, straightforward solution," Schumer told the hearing. "It's one the American
people support," he added, citing a recent New England Journal of Medicine survey that showed 74 percent of NRA members support mandatory background checks for all gun sales.
LaPierre told the panel that the NRA now opposed universal background checks for gun owners, a reversal of an earlier position, saying the current system has failed because the administration does not aggressively prosecute violators.
David Kopel, an analyst at the Cato Institute, said the current federal gun control law has been a "matrix of failure" and measures such as an assault weapons ban do not reduce violent crime. But he said there was room for cooperation on how to reduce gun violence.
"Gun rights and gun control don't have to be culture war enemies," Kopel said.
"The Second Amendment is not absolute any more than the First Amendment is." Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a gun-owning senator from Vermont where hunting is a way of life for many, urged lawmakers put aside Congress's normal partisanship and avoid "demagoguery" in debating common-sense reforms.
"We need to come together as Americans seeking common cause," Leahy said. "Americans are looking to us for solutions and for action." In the wake of Newtown, Giffords and husband Kelly launched a group called Americans for Responsible Solutions aimed at curbing gun violence, and which some see as a lobbying bulwark against the NRA.
Kelly said he and Giffords were testifying not as victims, but as gun owners and "two reasonable Americans who realize we have a problem with gun violence, and we need Congress to act." He said he and Giffords would never give up their guns or their right to own them, "but rights demand responsibility." "And this right does not extend to terrorists. It does not extend to criminals. It does not extend to the mentally ill.