Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and husband Mark Kelly, right, arrive for… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
WASHINGTON — "Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important," former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords told her onetime colleagues. "Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something.
"It would be hard, but the time is now. You must act."
Her words, read from a single, handwritten page, were among the camera-ready scenes as the Senate began hearings on gun control Wednesday, in a charged atmosphere with each side reaching for emotional force.
The former congresswoman, still severely disabled after being shot in the head two years ago at an outdoor appearance in her Tucson district, spoke for barely a minute, breaking the traditional protocol that calls for senators to make opening statements before witnesses give testimony.
Then she made her way from the room, leaving behind her husband, retired Navy Capt. Mark E. Kelly, a former space shuttle astronaut. In a reminder of the pervasiveness of gun violence in this country, Kelly informed senators that three people had just been wounded by a gunman at an office building in Phoenix. (At least one of the victims later died.)
At the opposite end of a long, polished table sat the lead witness for the opposing side, National Rifle Assn. Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. He and Kelly barely interacted save for a brief handshake at the hearing's close.
The space between the two could have served as a metaphor for much of the hearing, where the formal politeness of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room did little to mask the continued wide division over gun legislation.
Democrats called for stronger laws to limit the sale of guns; Republicans insisted that existing laws were being under-enforced and questioned the need for new ones.
The shootings in Tucson and Newtown, Conn., where 20 first-graders were killed last month, "are terrible tragedies," said the senior Republican on the panel, Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, but they "should not be used to put forward every gun control measure that has been floating around for years."
Off stage, some senators have begun to move toward agreement on at least one part of the gun package pushed by President Obama — a measure to tighten the system of background checks for gun purchases.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is crafting a background checks bill, announced at the hearing that he was "having productive conversations with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, including a good number with high NRA ratings."
That agreement does not extend to the NRA itself, as LaPierre made clear.
"Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals," he said.
Later, he specifically rejected the idea of universal background checks for gun purchases. "My problem with background checks is you're never going to get criminals to go through universal background checks," he said, prompting a heated exchange with Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin.
"Mr. LaPierre, that's the point," Durbin interjected. "The criminals won't go to purchase the guns, because there will be a background check. We'll stop them from the original purchase."
LaPierre was more amenable to prosecution of straw purchasers — people who buy guns for others, often those prohibited from buying firearms themselves. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Durbin introduced a bill last week to combat gun trafficking. Sens. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) unveiled another gun trafficking proposal Wednesday.
While prospects for expanded background checks and tougher trafficking laws have grown, the prospects for an assault weapons ban, eagerly sought by some gun control advocates, seem dim.
Leahy notably did not endorse the ban in his comments during the hearing. Nor did Kelly, who instead called for a "careful and civil conversation about the lethality of firearms we permit to be legally bought and sold in this country" while reminding senators of the toll that mass shootings have taken.
"Gabby's gift for speech is a distant memory," Kelly said, referring to his wife by her nickname. "She struggles to walk, and she is partially blind." But, he added, "we aren't here as victims. We're speaking to you today as Americans."
He and Giffords "have our firearms for the same reasons that millions of others have guns, for hunting and target shooting," he said. "But rights demand responsibility." After the hearing, Giffords and Kelly met with Obama at the White House.
The chief sponsor of the assault weapon ban, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), greeted LaPierre at the beginning of her remarks by noting that she last battled with him over gun laws 18 years ago. She told the NRA executive that he "look[ed] pretty good." She did not engage with him further.