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Background checks take center stage at fractious Senate hearing


Updated 3:17 p.m. - Democrats looking to sustain public pressure for new gun laws in the wake of the Newtown shootings clashed Wednesday with Republicans and the National Rifle Association over universal background checks, a far less dramatic proposed change than an assault weapons ban or limits on high capacity magazines.

"My problem with background checks is you're never going to get criminals to go through universal background checks," Wayne LaPierre, CEO and chief lobbyist for the NRA, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence, the first since President Barack Obama laid out new measures to curb gun crime. "None of it makes any sense in the real world."

Related: Obama's gun plan begins slow, scrutinized trek through Congress

The obvious drama in the packed hearing room lasted over four hours, with passions running well beyond the normal staid congressional panel. The emotion was heightened by the presence of some major iconic figures in the battle over whether – and how – to tighten federal regulation of firearms.

LaPierre sat at the opposite end of the witness table from Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Critically wounded at a shooting in Tucson in 2011, Giffords opened the hearing with a dramatic plea, haltingly asking Congress to "do something to prevent gun violence."

Susan Walsh / AP

Mark Kelly, husband of former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords; David Kopel, law professor at Strum College in Denver; Baltimore Police Chief James Johnson; Gayle Trotter, senior fellow with the Independent Women's Forum; and National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, are sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, prior to testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence.

"My wife would not have been sitting here today if we had stronger background checks," Kelly told the committee later in the hearing. 

Under current law, people can buy guns through a private seller without getting a background check. It's commonly referred to as the "gun show loophole." The Obama administration's proposal to close this loophole by requiring background checks for all sales of firearms dominated much of Wednesday's hearing.

Related: Giffords 'Too many children are dying … you must act'

The exchanges at the hearing illustrated the sharp political divide over changing the nation's gun laws – and the difficulty in enacting any of the more dramatic new measures included in the package the White House is pushing, which includes an assault weapons ban and limits on high capacity magazines.

"The deaths in Newtown should not be used to put forward every gun control measure that has been floating around for years," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee's ranking member.

"Emotion often leads to bad policies," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who called the 1994 assault weapons ban a "singularly ineffective piece of legislation."

Gabrielle Giffords' husband, retired astronaut and Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, tells the Senate Judiciary Committee that he and his wife are still gun owners and value the second amendment, but stresses that the right to own a firearm demands responsibility and urges lawmakers to revise existing gun control legislation.

Even Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from rural Vermont, did not explicitly endorse the assault weapons ban that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced last week. But he did call for background checks, sharply challenging LaPierre on the subject.

Slideshow: Ariz. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

The NRA's position on background checks is a switch from the organization's position 14 years ago. "We think it's reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone," LaPierre told a congressional panel in 1999.

A place where there was some common ground: gun trafficking. 

“We may be able to work together to prevent straw purchasers from trafficking in guns,” Grassley said, a sentiment echoed by others on the panel.

The obvious legislative hurdles -- on display Wednesday -- help explain why Democrats are relying on a campaign-like strategy and a series of public events to try to ratchet up public demand for stricter regulations on firearms. Giffords' story makes her a compelling public advocate.

"Too many children are dying," she said Wednesday, breaking up the syllables during her testimony.

"It will be hard, but the time is now," said Giffords, who has embarked on an arduous recovery since she was shot in the head, affecting her speech. "You. Must. Act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you."

She walked into Wednesday's hearing, her husband holding her hand and carefully guiding her to her seat in front of the Senate panel.

She spoke for just over a minute; her husband helped her back out of the room.

"Gabby's gift for speech is a distant memory," Kelly said later. "She struggles to walk, and she is partially blind. Her right arm is completely paralyzed."

With help from her husband, Mark Kelly, Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who was shot and left handicapped after a gunman opened fire at an event in Tucson, Ariz. speaks at a Senate hearing on gun control.

In trying to counter the emotional testimony, Republicans repeatedly praised Giffords’ perseverance and focused on trying to raise doubts about whether the measures Democrats had proposed to combat gun violence would work. They insisted current gun laws aren't being prosecuted effectively.

“This discussion, I sit here and listen to it, and my reaction is how little it has to do with the problem of keeping our kids safe and how much it has to do with the decadelong, two decadelong, gun ban agenda when we don’t even enforce the laws on the books,” LaPierre said.

Wednesday's hearings were the first in a planned series of sessions on gun laws. Leahy said Wednesday that he plans to begin the process of crafting a gun package in his committee next month. With Obama and Vice President Joe Biden publicly making the case for new laws, gun control advocates expect any action to begin in the Senate; the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has shown little appetite for taking up the issue.

In the wake of Newtown, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 56 percent of Americans believe gun laws should be more strict. The survey showed just 7 percent believe gun restrictions should be less strict.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday that he planned to bring gun legislation to the Senate floor -- though with an open process that could allow senators to make changes. Such a process would likely make it harder to pass the bill.

“It’s very clear that there’s going to be a bill brought out of the committee, brought to the Senate floor, and there will be an amendment process there,” Reid said. He added that senators would be allowed to “bring up whatever amendments they want that deal with this issue.”