WASHINGTON - In a dramatic appeal, wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords urged Congress on Wednesday to enact tougher curbs on guns, saying, "too many children are dying" without them.
"The time is now. You must act. Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you," she told the Senate Judiciary Committee at Congress' first gun control hearing since 20 elementary school children were shot to death in Newtown, Conn., late last year.
Giffords spoke haltingly, a result of the wounds suffered when she was shot in the head in an attempted assassination two years ago that left six others dead.
But in conflicting testimony a little more than an hour later, a top official of the National Rifle Association rejected bans on certain assault weapons and high capacity magazines advocated by President Barack Obama and gun control advocates in Congress.
Under persistent questioning from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the panel's chairman, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre also conceded that in a reversal, his organization no longer supports universal background checks for gun purchasers. He said criminals wouldn't subject themselves to a background check and the current system is a failure because the administration doesn't prosecute potential violators aggressively.
"Back in '99 you said, `no loopholes, nowhere,' " said Leahy, referring to testimony delivered more than a decade ago. "Now you do not support background checks for all."
Other Democrats on the panel disagreed with LaPierre.
"That's the point. The criminals will not go to purchase the guns because there'll be a background check. It will stop them from original purchase. You missed that point completely. It is basic," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Giffords was not on the list of witnesses released in advance of the hearings, and in an unusual show of respect, members of the committee greeted her warmly outside the hearing room as she and her husband, former astronaut and retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, made their way inside. The former Democratic congresswoman was grievously wounded in an assassination attempt in Tucson, Ariz., a little more than two years ago, and has become a public advocate for gun control.
Kelly spoke as well, describing the effect on his wife of the events of two years ago.
"Gabby's gift for speech is a distant memory. She struggles to walk, and she is partially blind. Her right arm is completely paralyzed," he told a rapt committee room.
In the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., massacre, Obama has issued a call for gun control legislation.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat and member of the committee, has introduced a bill to ban numerous assault-style weapons as well as high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The prospects for Senate passage are not strong, in part because of opposition from the NRA and in part from a reluctance among rural-state Democrats - Leahy among them - to support limitations sought by some advocates of restrictions on firearms.
Republicans pledged to listen carefully, and no more.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the panel's senior Republican, said that while the shootings in Arizona and Connecticut were terrible tragedies, they "should not be used to put forward every gun control measure that has been floating around for years.." He also said any serious discussion of the issue `must include a complete re-examination of mental health as it related to mass shootings."
In an opening statement of his own, Leahy said it is "a simple matter of common sense" that there should be a strengthening of background checks and that doing so would not threaten gun owners' rights. The checks are currently required for gun purchases from licensed dealers but not at gun shows or other private transaction.
At the same time, he said the Constitution's second amendment "is secure and will remain secure and protection....No one can or will take those rights or our guns away," he said.
He added, "let us forego sloganeering, demagoguery and partisan recriminations. This is too important for that."
Giffords' appearance - not only her words, but her obvious difficulty in speaking - served to underscore the emotion surrounding the issue of gun curbs.
The gunman in Tucson, Jared Loughner, used a 9 mm Glock pistol with an extended ammunition magazine in the attack that wounded the former congresswoman and killed six. The handgun would not have been illegal under a federal assault weapons ban that lapsed more than seven years ago, but the magazine that held more than 30 bullets would have been prohibited.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., indicated that whatever the committee produced wouldn't necessarily be the final product, saying the package would be debated by the full Senate and senators would be allowed to propose "whatever amendments they want that deal with this issue."
Despite the horrific Newtown slayings, it remains unclear whether those advocating limits on gun availability will be able to overcome resistance by the NRA and lawmakers from states where gun ownership abounds. Question marks include not just many Republicans but also Democratic senators facing re-election in red-leaning states in 2014. They include Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
Knowing that television cameras would beam images of the hearing nationally, both sides were drumming up supporters to attend Wednesday's session.
A page on an NRA-related website urged backers to arrive two hours early to get seats, bring no signs and dress appropriately. The liberal BoldProgressives.org urged its members to attend, saying the NRA "will try to pack the room with their supporters to deceive Congress into believing they are mainstream."
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama proposed a package that includes banning assault weapons, requiring background checks on all firearms purchases and limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.
Giffords underwent a lengthy rehabilitation process and has regained some ability to speak, but has retired from Congress. A gun owner, she and her husband Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, have formed a political action committee called Americans for Responsible Solutions to back lawmakers who support tighter gun restrictions.
The massacre in Newtown has also set off a national discussion about mental health care, with everyone from law enforcement leaders to the gun industry urging policymakers to focus on the issue as a way to help prevent similar mass shootings. The issue of mental health has arisen in four recent mass shootings, including Sandy Hook, the Tucson shooting, the incident in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last year and Virginia Tech in 2007.