WASHINGTON — She spoke just 72 words, reading slowly and carefully from a lined sheet where a speech therapist had transcribed her thoughts. One of the many things former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has lost is the congressional luxury to be long-winded.
“You must act. Be bold. Be courageous," Giffords testified Wednesday in her first formal remarks on Capitol Hill since an attack that nearly killed her two years ago. “Americans are counting on you."
Giffords was the first witness called by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, in a hearing that served as the Congressional kickoff for a bitter fight about guns.
Other witnesses included Giffords’ husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who has joined her in a push to tighten gun laws. And, at the other end of the witness table and on the other side of the issue, Wayne LaPierre — the National Rifle Association’s articulate, combative spokesman in Washington.
Four hours later, a lot had been said, and very little had been settled. The memory of Giffords’ appearance gradually lost its solemn hold on the participants. At one point, a female gun-rights advocate told a Democratic senator that he could not understand the appeal of a high-capacity ammunition magazine because, “you are a large man" who doesn’t feel as vulnerable as a woman.
But, by the end, one thing seemed clearer. A consensus among lawmakers is emerging behind an expansion of background checks for gun buyers, a proposal with far more bipartisan support than a reinstatement of the federal assault-weapons ban.
“Universal background checks is a proven, effective step we can take to reduce gun violence," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said at the hearing. “And I believe it has a good chance of passing.
The purpose of Wednesday’s hearing was to shape gun legislation that can pass a splintered Congress. Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he expects the panel to craft some kind of bill by next month. Schumer has led the charge on mandating background checks for all gun purchases — closing a “loophole" that exempts sales at gun shows. Also Wednesday, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., unveiled a new bipartisan measure to make gun trafficking a federal crime.
It was a quiet — and mainly polite — discussion of violence.
Opponents of gun control told stories about homeowners shooting intruders in terrified self-defense. Supporters talked about the shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 elementary-school students, six school staffers, the shooter and his mother dead in December.