DENVER -- For all the talk about guns and gun laws in recent months, few words have been more affecting than the 71 spoken by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
More than two years after she was shot when a gunman opened fire at a constituent event in a Tucson parking lot, Giffords asked the committee, holding its first hearing on gun violence since the Newtown, Conn. shooting in December, to do something to address the problem.
"This is an important conversation for our children, for our communities," Giffords said. "For Democrats and Republicans. 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. It will be hard. But the time to act is now,” she said, emphasizing the last word. “You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you."
Giffords, along with her husband, Mark Kelly, recently formed a group aiming to improve America's gun laws. Kelly, a former space shuttle commander, followed his wife's testimony by describing her long, difficult recovery from shooting that nearly took her life and argued that "rights come with responsibilities."
Kelly also told the committee that they own guns and believe in the Second Amendment.
"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."
The committee's Chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, made it clear that the constitution right to bear arms is not up for discussion as Congress examines new proposals to strengthen the country's gun laws.
"Second Amendment rights are the foundation on which our discussion rests," Leahy said. "They are not at risk. 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. I ask that we focus our discussion on additional statutory measures to better protect our children and all Americans."
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, quickly responded, warning that the Newton shooting "should not be used to put forth every gun control measure that’s been around for years."
Grassley argued that legislation should instead address violence in video games and said that ample research showed that the expired ban on assault weapons, which stood from 1994 to 2004, had been ineffective.
The National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre also addressed the committee and said that new gun measures might not make much of a different due to lax enforcement.
"We need to enforce the thousands of gun laws that are currently on the books," LaPierre said. "Prosecuting criminals who misuse firearms works. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a dramatic collapse in federal gun prosecutions in recent years. Over all in 2011, federal weapons prosecutions per capita were down 35 percent from their peak in the previous administration. That means violent felons, gang members and the mentally ill who possess firearms are not being prosecuted. And that’s unacceptable."
Pressed on whether he supports legislation that would extend mandatory background checks for all gun purchases, including those at gun shows and on the internet, LaPierre told Leahy that he does not.
Denver's Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute also testified before the Senate committee and pushed for increasing armed guards at all schools and for allowing teachers to carry guns on campus.
"If you want to save lives, armed defense in schools is the immediate and best choice," Kopel testified.
A Colorado measure that would have enabled school districts to let staff carry concealed weapons on campus was voted down by Democrats at the Capitol on Monday.
Colorado, with a history of mass shootings stretching from Columbine to Aurora, is of increasing importance to groups on both sides of this debate.
NRA President David Keene requested a meeting with Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has expressed support for universal background checks and larger discussion about gun control; and the two are scheduled to meet next week.