"Be bold. be courageous. Americans are counting on you," said Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was seriously wounded in a Jan. 2011 mass shooting that left six people dead and more than a dozen others injured.
In a slow, halting delivery -- but one far stronger than when she retired from Congress a year ago -- Giffords made a highly emotional plea for action in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre.
"Violence is a big problem," Giffords added. "Too many children are dying. Too many children."
Giffords' rare public appearance was the opening act in what is expected to be a highly contentious day as lawmakers begin considering new gun control measures, a debate that stirs deep passions on both sides of the issue.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, quickly warned that the Newton shooting "should not be used to put forth every gun control measure that's been around for years."
Grassley also slammed President Barack Obama over his calls for more gun controls, including the president's use of executive orders to implement some changes to federal gun regulations.
"President Obama has turned the Constitution on its head," Grassley asserted.
Among the witnesses at Wednesday's sessions are Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, and Mark Kelly, Giffords' husband. The NRA is vehemently opposed to any new federal gun laws.
Kelly told the panel that he and Giffords are "both gun owners and take that right and the responsibilities that come with it very seriously."
"We are simply two reasonable Americans who realize we have a problem with gun violence, and we need Congress to act," Kelly said. "Gabby and I are pro-gun ownership. We are anti-gun violence."
Kelly called for the expansion of background checks for gun purchases; allowing the Center for Disease Control and other public health organizations to study gun violence, which the NRA has blocked; a new gun trafficking law; and a "careful and civil conversation" on assault weapons ban and prohibition on the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips.
Two other witnesses -- James Johnson, Baltimore police chief, and Professor David Kopel, a legal expert from Denver University -- also took wildly different approaches to the issue.
Johnson noted that 2,000 children under age 18 are killed annually, and guns were the top cause of death for police officers killed in the line of duty in 2011.
"But on behalf of my colleagues across the nation, I am here today to tell you that we are long overdue in strengthening our nation's gun laws," Johnson said. "Doing so must be a priority for Congress."
Kopel, though, said school teachers should be armed in order to avoid more shooting like the Newtown massacre.
In his opening statement, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) called for expansion of background checks for gun buyers, but he did not endorse an assault weapons ban being pushed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is also a committee member. Feinstein will hold her own subcommittee hearing to review that proposal, which is strongly opposed by the NRA and gun owner groups.
Leahy also said that the right to buy and keep guns, as provided for in the Second Amendment, will remain in place.
"I have introduced a measure to provide law enforcement agencies with stronger tools against illegal gun trafficking," Leahy said in his statement. "Others have proposed restrictions on military-style weapons and the size of ammunition clips. Others have proposed modifications to the background check systems to keep guns out of the wrong hands, while not unnecessarily burdening law-abiding citizens."
Leahy called the expansion of background checks to include private transfers and gun-show purchases "a simple matter of common sense."
"If we can all agree that criminals and those adjudicated as mentally ill should not buy firearms, why should we not try to plug the loopholes in the law that allow them to buy guns without background checks? It is a simple matter of common sense," Leahy said.
But Leahy, who represents largely rural Vermont, noted that he remain committed to protecting the rights of gun owners while calling for new safeguards to "become a safer and more [secure] society."
"Americans have the right to self-defense and to have guns in their homes to protect their families. No one can or will take those rights or our guns away," Leahy said. "But lives are at risk when responsible people fail to stand up for laws that will keep guns out of the hands of those who will use them to commit mass murder."
Leahy's views are similar to those of other Democrats from pro-gun states in the West and Midwest, some of whom face reelection in 2014.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and other Democratic leaders want Leahy to move a gun-control bill through his committee that can reach the Senate floor by late February or early March.
The leadership wants to see the bill include universal background checks at a minimum. That would allow Feinstein and other pro-gun control Democrats to offer amendments to expand the legislation, including an assault weapons ban. Democrats up for reelection in 2014 in red states could then go on record opposing the assault weapons ban, if they so chose, while still supporting the background checks measure.
Reid has already stated that he will not move a bill through the Senate that cannot get House support. And House support for an assault weapons ban is very unlikely.
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