By Mike Lillis - 01/30/13 09:08 PM EST
A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence Wednesday featured a showdown between National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who made a dramatic, surprise appearance before the panel.
Accompanied by her husband Mark Kelly, Giffords implored Congress to act on gun legislation a little more than two years after she was gravely wounded in a shooting rampage that led to her early retirement.
"Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important," Giffords said in halting language, as the packed hearing room hung on every word. "Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something.
Kelly, a retired Navy Captain and astronaut who helped his wife leave the hearing room, returned to give his own testimony.
He told the panel that both he and Giffords are gun owners and hunters who have no intention of giving up their Second Amendment rights. But some new controls, he argued, would make the country safer without eroding those rights.
"Gabby would never relinquish her gun, and I would never relinquish mine," Kelly said at Congress's first hearing on gun violence since the shooting of Giffords. "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.
"The breadth and complexity of the problem of gun violence is great," Kelly added, "but it is not an excuse for inaction.
The Judiciary Committee hearing comes weeks after President Obama offered a package of gun control proposals in response to the killings by a lone gunman of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Obama's proposals include calls to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, which both face high hurdles to winning approval in Congress. Obama also wants to expand background checks so they precede all gun sales, not only those conducted by licensed dealers.
LaPierre at Wednesday's hearing pushed back hard against any new gun restrictions, including the call from Kelly and others for tougher background checks. He said those screenings “will never be universal, because criminals will never submit to them,” and he warned that such checks would create a "nightmare" federal bureaucracy that would ensnare law-abiding gun owners without their even knowing it.
Pressed by Judiciary Commitee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) on whether the NRA supports an expansion of background checks to all weapon sales at gun shows – not only those conducted by federally licensed dealers – LaPierre blamed the Obama administration for failing to prosecute known criminals, who could then walk into gun shows and buy weapons from private sellers without background checks.
“With all due respect,” Leahy responded, “that was not the question I asked. Nor did you answer it.”
Many Republicans on the panel faulted federal prosecutors and the Justice Department for failing to enforce gun laws on the books. "I have a hard time telling my constituents in Texas that Congress is looking at passing a whole raft of new laws when the laws we currently have on the books are so woefully unenforced," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, also challenged the effectiveness of new gun controls to fight crime. The 1994 assault-weapons ban, for instance, did not prevent the mass shooting in Columbine in 1999, Grassley noted.
Echoing calls from the NRA, Grassley suggested Congress should focus its violence-prevention efforts on mental health and cultural factors like violent video games. He rued the “lack of civility in American society” he says has grown “in recent decades.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) agreed that efforts to rein in violent crime must look beyond gun laws. But he rejected the notion that gun controls should be excluded from the discussion altogether.
“Not including guns when discussing mass killings is like not including cigarettes when discussing lung cancer,” Schumer said.
The debate also featured an argument over constitutional rights, with LaPierre arguing that guns are necessary not only to allow citizens to fight a tyrannical government, but for "fundamental human survival" in the event the government abandons them. He cited the chaotic environment after a natural disaster as such an occasion.
Highlighting the emotional nature of the gun-control debate, hundreds of observers packed the hearing room in the Hart Congressional Office Building on Wednesday, while scores of others snaked in a line outside even after the room had filled. Many wore stickers on their shirts that read, "Stop Gun Violence NOW."
A number of Capitol Police officers were on the scene, although the audience remained respectfully subdued throughout the proceeding – a tone that was echoed by the lawmakers. Indeed, despite the thorny nature of the topic at hand, there were light-hearted moments.
For instance, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the author of an assault-weapons ban who has squared off for years against the NRA, nonetheless welcomed LaPierre to Capitol Hill.
"It's good to see you again," she said to laughter in the audience. "You look pretty good actually."
Giffords was hosting a constituent outreach event outside a grocery store near Tucson in January 2011 when a lone gunman went on a shooting rampage. Six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, were killed and 13 others injured, including Giffords, who resigned from Congress one year ago to focus on her rehabilitation.
Jared Lee Loughner, who last summer pleaded guilty to the shootings, had been expelled from community college for disturbing behavior and denied entrance into the military for a history of drug abuse. Yet he was able to buy a firearm and high-capacity ammunition magazines from local, licensed gun dealers.
Giffords and Kelly launched a super-PAC this month designed to counter the influence of the NRA on Capitol Hill. The group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, hopes to raise $20 million ahead of the 2014 mid-term elections.
Opponents of gun control argue that tougher laws would disproportionately disadvantage the most vulnerable populations.
Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative group that advocates for smaller government, warned that new restrictions on gun ownership would endanger women.
"For women, the ability to arm ourselves for our protection is even more consequential than for men because guns are the great equalizer in a violent confrontation," Trotter said.
LaPierre and the NRA, meanwhile, are calling for a program putting armed guards in all the nation's schools as a strategy for protecting children.
"It's time to throw an immediate blanket of security around our children," LaPierre said.
But gun-control advocates are rejecting the notion that the antidote to gun violence is a spike in the number of guns.
"We can't have a totally armed society," Feinstein said.
Baltimore Police Chief James Johnson, who heads the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, echoed that message. Playing on a recent statement from LaPierre – "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" – Johnson called for an immediate move to universal background checks.
"The best way to stop a bad guy from having a gun in the first place, is a good background check," Johnson said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who declined this week to endorse Feinstein's assault-weapons ban, has said he will bring to the floor – with an open amendment process – any legislation Leahy and the Judiciary Committee can pass.
Leahy said he hopes to mark up legislation to send to the floor next month.
"We will respect the diversity of viewpoints reflected today," he vowed.
This story was posted at 10:25 a.m. and last updated at 4:08 p.m.