Giffords makes emotional plea over guns
Former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, grievously wounded in a 2011 mass shooting, made an emotional plea today for Congress to take action to curb gun violence in the aftermath of last month's Connecticut school massacre, urging lawmakers to "be bold, be courageous."
Wearing a red outfit and speaking haltingly, Ms Giffords appeared as the first person to testify before the first congressional hearing on gun violence since the December 14th incident in which a gunman shot dead 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
"This is an important conversation for our children, for our communities, for Democrats and Republicans," Ms Giffords, who survived a head wound in an assassination attempt last year in Tucson, Arizona, said, speaking haltingly. Six people were killed and 13 wounded in the incident.
"Speaking is difficult. But I need to say something important," she told the senators. "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."
Accompanied by her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, she concluded: "You must act. Be bold, be courageous. Americans are counting on you. Thank you." She did not take questions from the committee.
Responding to outrage across the country following the Connecticut massacre, president Barack Obama and other Democrats are seeking the largest gun-control package in decades.
Witnesses and lawmakers at the hearing agreed on the constitutional right to own guns but clashed over Mr Obama's proposals, particularly the call for universal background checks for all gun buyers. That is seen as the most likely restriction to gain bipartisan support in a sharply divided Congress.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and CEO of the powerful gun rights lobbying group the National Rifle Association, dismissed Obama's plan to close loopholes in the background check law.
"Let's be honest, background checks will never be universal because criminals will never submit to them," LaPierre said.
Mr Kelly also testified. The couple recently founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group intended to combat gun violence.
Mr Obama's proposals to curb gun violence include reinstating the US ban on military-style "assault" weapons, limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines, and more extensive background checks of prospective gun buyers, largely to verify whether they have a history of crime or mental illness.
Republicans and some pro-gun Democrats envision a more modest package. It is unclear whether there is sufficient support in the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-led House of Representatives to pass any gun restrictions beyond improved background checks.
The calls for gun control - so prominent during the emotional days following the shootings in Connecticut - will face political reality in Congress.
The committee chairman, Senator Patrick Leahey, made clear whatever measures would be considered to rein in gun violence, there would be no move to erode the fundamental right of Americans to own a gun, which is protected under the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.
"Americans have the right to have guns in their home to protect their family," he said.
Americans must come together on the issue, Mr Leahey, a Vermont Democrat, added.
Most Republicans and some Democrats in Congress favor gun rights and represent constituents who do as well. The NRA has called any attempt to restrict weapon sales an assault on Americans' constitutional right to bear arms.