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We begin this hour with emotional testimony today at a Senate hearing on gun violence. Former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made a surprise appearance before the panel. Two years ago, Giffords was shot in the head while meeting with constituents in Tucson. As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, today's hearing was the first time Congress has addressed gun violence since the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The packed hearing room was silent but for the clicks of photographers' cameras as Giffords was escorted to the witness table by her husband, former shuttle commander Mark Kelly. Dressed in an orange suit, her hair carefully styled, Giffords looked nearly recovered from her wounds, but it's clearly an ongoing process, as Giffords acknowledged at the start of her brief testimony.
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important. Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying, too many children. We must do something.
NAYLOR: Giffords told senators they must act now.
GIFFORDS: Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you. Thank you.
NAYLOR: Giffords then left the hearing room. Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, spoke next. He has proposed legislation to toughen laws forbidding illegal gun purchases. Leahy said no one was trying to take away gun owners' Second Amendment rights.
SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: Second Amendment rights are the foundation on which our discussion rests. They're not at risk. But what is at risk are lives. 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 murder, especially mass murders.
NAYLOR: The top Republican on the committee, Iowa's Charles Grassley, said the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 first-graders and six adult educators were slain, shocked the nation. But he added...
SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: The deaths in Newtown should not be used to put forward every gun control measure that's been floating around for years, because the problem is greater than just guns alone.
NAYLOR: Grassley blamed violent video games for acting as triggers for mass murders. He and other Republicans also charged the Obama administration with failing to prosecute gun-related crimes. The panelists offered a variety of proposals. Mark Kelly - who, along with Giffords, formed a political action committee to support candidates who favor gun controls - called for universal background checks.
MARK KELLY: And in my opinion and in Gabby's opinion, this is one of the most important things that we must do to prevent criminals, terrorists and the mentally ill from having easy access to guns.
NAYLOR: Some senators are backing a renewal of the ban on assault-style weapons in the wake of the recent shootings. But Gayle Trotter, an attorney with the Independent Women's Forum, spoke out against a ban, saying guns make women safer.
GAYLE TROTTER: The peace of mind that a woman has as she's facing three, four, five violent attackers, intruders in her home, with her children screaming in the background, the peace of mind that she has knowing that she has a scary-looking gun gives her more courage when she's fighting hardened, violent criminals.
NAYLOR: Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, called for better enforcement of gun laws now on the books. He asserted the current system of background checks was a failure.
WAYNE LAPIERRE: We got to get in the real world on what works and what doesn't work. My problem with background checks is you're never going to get criminals to go through universal background checks.
NAYLOR: Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois said LaPierre had it wrong.
SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: Mr. LaPierre, that's the point. The criminals won't go to purchase the guns because there'll be a background check. We'll stop them from the original purchase. You missed that point completely, and I think it's - it's basic.
LAPIERRE: Senator, I think you missed the point.
(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL BEING BANGED)
LEAHY: Let there be order. There will be order.
LAPIERRE: I think you're missing it.
NAYLOR: Today's four-hour long session was just the first of what's likely to be a series of hearings on curbing gun violence. It played out as a gunman opened fire at a Phoenix office building, shooting three people. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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