WASHINGTON -- Speaking slowly but with discernible passion, former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically injured in a mass shooting in Arizona in 2011, addressed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in its first hearing since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., last month.
Ms. Giffords, who entered a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill, walked slowly by the senators gathered to hear testimony from several witnesses, including her husband Mark E. Kelly, and kissed some of them on the cheeks as she passed.
"This is an important conversation for our children, for our communities," Ms. Giffords began. "For Democrats and Republicans. Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important. 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," she said, emphasizing the last word. "You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you." With that, Ms. Giffords made her way quietly out of the room.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the committee, then began his opening remarks, noting that "the Second Amendment is secure and will remain secure and protected. In two recent cases, the Supreme Court has confirmed that the Second Amendment, like other aspects of our Bill of Rights, secures a fundamental individual right. Americans have the right to self-defense and to have guns in their homes to protect their families. No one can or will take those rights or our guns away. Second Amendment rights are the foundation on which our discussion rests. They are not at risk. But lives are at risk when responsible people fail to stand up for laws that will keep guns out of the hands of those who will use them to commit mass murder. I ask that we focus our discussion on additional statutory measures to better protect our children and all Americans."
The first Republican to speak, immediately after Mr. Leahy, was Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who argued that legislation must address violence in video games and said that ample research underscored that the expired ban on assault weapon had been ineffective.
The first witness to speak was Mr. Kelly, who revisited the horror of the day his wife was shot, and its aftermath. "She struggles to walk and she is partially blind," he said, "and a year ago she left the job she loves serving the people of Arizona."
Pointing out that he and Ms. Giffords remain gun owners he said, "We aren't here as victims, we are speaking to you here today as Americans." Ms. Gifford's and Mr. Kelly's group, Americans for Responsible Solution, seeks changes to gun laws that would better weed out mentally ill and criminal gun buyers through improvements to the background check system.
"When dangerous people get dangerous guns we are all the more vulnerable," he said.
Wayne La Pierre, head of the National Rifle Association, also testified Wednesday. Under intense questioning from Mr. Leahy, Mr. La Pierre said he did not support the expansion of background checks for firearm sales. "I do not believe the way it is working now that it does any good to extend to law to private sales," he said.
In his testimony Mr. La Pierre also reiterated his call for armed security in schools and his resistance to new gun control measures.
"It's time to throw an immediate blanket of security around our children," Mr. La Pierre said. "About a third of our schools have armed security already -- because it works. And that number is growing. Right now, state officials, local authorities and school districts in all 50 states are considering their own plans to protect children in their schools."
Mr. La Pierre added: "In addition, we need to enforce the thousands of gun laws that are currently on the books. Prosecuting criminals who misuse firearms works. Unfortunately, we've seen a dramatic collapse in federal gun prosecutions in recent years. Over all in 2011, federal weapons prosecutions per capita were down 35 percent from their peak in the previous administration. That means violent felons, gang members and the mentally ill who possess firearms are not being prosecuted. And that's unacceptable."
Scores of regular people lined the hallways of the Hart Senate Office Building on Wednesday morning, waiting to enter and signaling the most intense interest in a Congressional hearing since the days of the debate over the health care law, and perhaps the Iraq war. Several law enforcement officials lined a front row of seats in the hearing room.
Many Democrats have hoped to harness the emotional impact of the Newtown tragedy, and recent polling that suggests many Americans including gun owners support some new legislation aimed at stemming at least illegal gun use, to pursue legislation that has become, in many ways, the third rail of American politics.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has already introduced legislation that would ban the sale and manufacture of 157 types of semiautomatic weapons, as well as ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds. Bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines were among the proposals being pushedby President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
But Mr. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has introduced his own far more modest measure that would give law enforcement officials more tools to investigate so-called straw purchasing of guns, in which people buy firearms for others who are prohibited from obtaining them on their own.
Other senators are pushing their own bills. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, and Senator Mark Steven Kirk, Republican of Illinois, have agreed to work together on gun trafficking legislation that would seek to crack down on illegal guns. Mr. Kirk is also working on a background check proposal with Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, who is considered somewhat of a bellwether among Democrats with strong gun-rights records.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.