WASHINGTON — The National Rifle Association and gun-control advocates, including the husband of wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, are facing off at the year's first Senate hearing on what lawmakers should do to curb gun violence.
The two sides were squaring off Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose own members are divided in a microcosm of the debate that gun limits will face on their way through Congress. The hearing is a direct response to the Dec. 14 shooting rampage that killed 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and transformed gun control into a top-tier issue in the capital.
The Huffington Post confirmed Wednesday that Giffords will give opening remarks at the Senate hearing.
"The time has come to change course," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of Congress' leading gun-control advocates, said Tuesday. "And the time has come to make people safe."
Feinstein, a Judiciary Committee member, has already introduced her own legislation banning assault weapons and magazines of more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he would listen to proposals and agreed that reviewing the issue was timely.
"But I'm a strong supporter of the Second Amendment," he said Tuesday, citing the constitutional provision that describes the right to bear arms, "and I don't intend to change."
The chairman of the panel, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said little Tuesday about the direction his committee's legislation might take. 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.
Among those testifying will be Mark Kelly, husband of Giffords and a retired astronaut. Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, received a severe head wound in a 2011 shooting as she met with constituents outside a Tucson supermarket. Six people were killed and 12 others wounded.
Kelly and Giffords, a gun owner, formed a political action committee called Americans for Responsible Solutions to back lawmakers who support tighter gun restrictions.
In testimony prepared for the hearing but released Tuesday, Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, said such steps had failed in the past. He instead voiced support for better enforcement of existing laws, beefing up school security and strengthening the government's ability to keep guns from mentally unstable people.
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.
"Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals," LaPierre said in his statement. "Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families."
While not yielding on specifics, much of LaPierre's statement had a milder tone than other remarks the NRA has made since Newtown.
That includes an NRA television ad calling Obama an "elitist hypocrite" for voicing doubts about having armed school guards while his own children are protected that way at their school. While Obama's children have Secret Service protection, officials at their school have said its own guards don't carry guns.
Feinstein said Tuesday that she will hold her own hearing on gun control because she was unhappy that three of the five witnesses testifying Wednesday are "skewed against us."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday he would wait to see what legislation Democrats produce. Republican leaders of the GOP-run House have expressed similar sentiments.
Also on HuffPost:
1981: The Attempted Assassination Of President Ronald Reagan
on March 30, 1981, President Reagan and three others were shot and wounded in an assassination attempt by John Hinckley, Jr. outside the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. Reagan's press secretary, Jim Brady, was shot in the head.
1993: The Brady Handgun Violence Act
The Brady Handgun Violence Act of 1993, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, mandated that federally licensed dealers complete comprehensive background checks on individuals before selling them a gun. The legislation was named for James Brady, who was shot during an attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
1994: The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, instituted a ban on 19 kinds of assault weapons, including Uzis and AK-47s. The crime bill also banned the possession of magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition. (An exemption was made for weapons and magazines manufactured prior to the ban.)
2004: Law Banning Magazines Holding More Than Ten Rounds Of Ammunition Expires
In 2004, ten years after it first became law, Congress allowed a provision banning possession of magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition to expire through a sunset provision. Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke told HuffPost that the expiration of this provision meant that Rep. Gabby Giffords's alleged shooter was able to fire off 20-plus shots without reloading (under the former law he would have had only ten).
2007: The U.S. Court of Appeals For The District Of Columbia Rules In Favor Of Dick Heller
In 2007 The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled to allow Dick Heller, a licensed District police officer, to keep a handgun in his home in Washington, D.C. Following that ruling, the defendants petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
2008: The NICS Improvement Amendments Act
Following the deadly shooting at Virginia Tech University, Congress passed legislation to require states provide data on mentally unsound individuals to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, with the aim of halting gun purchases by the mentally ill, and others prohibited from possessing firearms. The bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush in January of 2008.
2008: Supreme Court Strikes Down D.C. Handgun Ban As Unconstitutional
In June of 2008, the United States Supreme Court upheld the verdict of a lower court ruling the D.C. handgun ban unconstitutional in the landmark case <em>District of Columbia v. Heller</em>.
Gabrielle Giffords And Trayvon Martin Shootings
Gun control advocates had high hopes that reform efforts would have increased momentum in the wake of two tragic events that rocked the nation. In January of 2011, Jared Loughner opened fire at an event held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), killing six and injuring 13, including the congresswoman. Resulting attempts to push gun control legislation <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/09/trayvon-martin-shooting-gun-debate_n_1413115.html" target="_hplink">proved fruitless</a>, with neither proposal even succeeding in gaining a single GOP co-sponsor. More than a year after that shooting, Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/trayvon-martin" target="_hplink">gunned down</a> by George Zimmerman in an event that some believed would bring increased scrutiny on the nation's Stand Your Ground laws. While there has been increasing discussion over the nature of those statutes, lawmakers were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/09/trayvon-martin-shooting-gun-debate_n_1413115.html" target="_hplink">quick to concede</a> that they had little faith the event would effectively spur gun control legislation, thanks largely to the National Rifle Association's vast lobbying power. Read more <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/09/trayvon-martin-shooting-gun-debate_n_1413115.html" target="_hplink">here</a>:
Colorado Movie Theater Shooting
In July of 2012, a heavily armed gunman <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/20/aurora-shooting-movie-theater-batman_n_1688547.html" target="_hplink">opened fire on theatergoers</a> attending a midnight premiere of the final film of the latest Batman trilogy, killing 12 and wounding scores more. The suspect, James Eagan Holmes, allegedly carried out the act with a number of handguns, as well as an AR-15 assault rifle with a 100-round drum magazine. Some lawmakers used the incident, which took place in a state with some of the laxest gun control laws, to bring forth legislation designed to place increased regulations on access to such weapons, but many observers, citing previous experience, were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/20/batman-shooting_n_1690547.html" target="_hplink">hesitant to say</a> that they would be able to overcome the power of the National Rifle Association and Washington gun lobby.
Sikh Temple Shooting
On August 5, 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page opened fire on a Sikhs gathered at a temple in Oak Creek, Wis., killing six and wounding four more before turning the gun on himself.