In the six weeks since more than two dozen people were killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, gun control has been a leading topic in Washington, and in communities around the country. President Obama has made a call for Congress to enact tougher gun regulations. Among those is renewing the assault weapons ban that expired under former President George W. Bush in 2004.
Toward that end, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened a hearing at the Capitol to hear testimony on proposals to bring back the assault weapons ban, enact tougher background checks for gun buyers and limits on high capacity ammunition magazines.
The hearing opened on a highly emotional note as former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) addressed the committee. Giffords stepped down from her office after she was wounded by a gunman in 2011. Her speech was halting as a result of brain damage sustained in that shooting.
In a brief statement to begin the hearing she said, “I need to say something important: Violence is a big problem too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now! You must act! Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you.”
Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly, who served as a space shuttle commander also offered testimony to the committee. He said he and his wife are both moderates and gun owners who take seriously the responsibilities that come with that right. He went on to suggest changes that would improve the safety of Americans. First he believes attention needs to be focused on fixing background checks. “The holes in our laws make a mockery of the background check system. Congress should close the private sales loophole and get dangerous people entered into that system.”
Among Kelly’s other thoughts on tightening gun controls are removing limitations on collecting data and conducting scientific research on gun violence, and enact tough federal gun trafficking statutes. His final though is “Let’s have a careful and civil conversation about the lethality of firearms we permit to be legally bought and sold in this country.”
In his opening statement Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said the Second Amendment is 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 use them to commit murder, especially mass murders. I ask we focus our discussion on additional statutory measures to better protect our children and all Americans.”
The committee’s leading Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said, “Although Newtown and Tucson are terrible tragedies, the deaths in Newtown should not be used to put forward every gun control measure that has been floating around for years. The problem is greater than guns alone.”
Grassley also took issue with statements from President Obama that suggest the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution could be sources of government power to restrict gun ownership rights. “The Constitution creates a limited federal government. It separates powers among the branches of the federal government and it preserves state power against federal power.
The Framers believed these structures would adequately control the government so as to protect individual liberty. But the American people disagreed. They feared that the Constitution gave the federal government so much power that it could be tyrannical and violate individual rights. So a Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution. Each of those rights, including the Second Amendment, was adopted to further limit government power and protect individual rights.”
In addressing the panel, NRA head Wayne LaPierre sang a familiar tune, saying more gun laws is not the answer. He said regulations already on the books need to be enforced and he suggested armed guards posted in schools around the country would prevent more incidents like Columbine and Sandy Hook.
“It’s time to throw an immediate blanket of security around our children. About a third of our schools have armed security already because it works,” he told the Senators. “And that number is growing every day. Right now, state officials, local authorities and school districts in all 50 states are considering their own plans to protect children in their schools.”
Responding to arguments in favor of instituting deeper background checks, LaPierre said gun sellers could take the step of looking for a history of mental illness in a potential gun purchaser, but he opposed background checks at gun shows. “When it comes to the issue of background checks, let’s be honest—background checks will never be ‘universal’ because criminals will never submit to them.”
LaPierre says “straw purchases” of guns should be prosecuted, such as anyone who helps a criminal get a gun. But he says it does no good to extend background checks to private sellers or in all instances. “The fact is the law right now is a failure the way it is working… This administration is not prosecuting the people they catch.”
And so it went in the Senate’s hearing room, advocates of stiffer gun regulation and opponents slugging it out in the halls of Congress. Each side certain its position is the one that’s right for America. The divisive discussion is likely to continue for some time.
Gun control measures are offered at the state and municipal level every year, and nearly every time Second Amendment purists and gun rights advocates have been successful in halting even the simplest regulations. But the public outcry is growing, and Washington is responding. All that remains to be seen is whether change is on the way, or if the status quo prevails.