WASHINGTON -- Severely wounded and still recovering, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords begged lawmakers at an emotional hearing Wednesday to act quickly to curb firearms because "Americans are counting on you." Not everyone agreed, underscoring the national political divide over gun control.
Giffords' 80-word plea was the day's most riveting moment, delivered in a hushed, halting voice two years after the Arizona Democrat suffered head wounds in a Tucson shooting spree that killed six people. The session also came two months after 20 first-graders and six women were slain by a gunman in Newtown, Conn.
At the same hearing, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, rejected Democratic proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. He said requiring background checks for all gun purchases would be ineffective because the Obama administration isn't doing enough to enforce the law as it is.
Even if stronger background checks did identify a criminal, "as long as you let him go, you're not keeping him from getting a gun and you're not preventing him from getting to the next crime scene," he said.
Giffords, who retired from Congress last year, focused on the carnage by armed assailants.
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"Too many children are dying," she said at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. "Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now."
Guiding Giffords in and remaining to testify himself was her husband, Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut. The couple has formed a political action committee called Americans for Responsible Solutions.
"We're simply two reasonable Americans who realize we have a problem with gun violence and we need Congress to act," Kelly said.
The hearing kicked off a year in which President Barack Obama and many in Congress are promising to make gun restrictions a top priority.
Still, senators' remarks during the hearing illustrated the gulf between the two parties.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) joined others in lauding Giffords but expressed little interest in added firearm restrictions.
He said gun control efforts too often "restrain the liberties of law-abiding citizens," not criminals.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said omitting gun limits from the debate "is like not including cigarettes when discussing lung cancer."
Democrats contested LaPierre's argument that criminals would simply ignore expanded requirements for background checks. Such checks are now required for gun purchases from licensed dealers, but not at gun shows or online.
"That's the point. The criminals will not go to purchase the guns because there'll be a background check. It will stop them from original purchase. You missed that point completely. It is basic," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.