Washington — Two starkly different visions of the role of guns in American society — and the size of the divide in Congress over gun control — were on display at a Senate hearing Wednesday.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., promoted the reinstatement of a ban on assault weapons and high capacity clips and universal background checks of gun purchasers.
“We can have reasonable limitations on a Second Amendment right in terms of the type of weapon (allowed) and background checks on those people who own them,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.,
But Republican members of the committee agreed with witnesses who support gun rights, including National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, who said no new laws are needed, only the better enforcement of those already on the books.
“The deaths in Newtown should not be used to put forward every gun control measure that’s been floating around for years,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
The murder of 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown was cited by gun control supporters, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., the victim of a mass shooter, as the reason for the new activism.
Giffords opened the hearing with a call for action.
“Speaking is difficult, but I still have to say something important. Too many children are dying, too many children,” Giffords said. “We must do something and the time is now.”
The former lawmaker’s husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, testified about the need for new federal restrictions on guns.
“Dangerous people with weapons specifically designed to inflict maximum lethality upon others have turned every single corner of our society into places of carnage and gross human loss,” he said.
But other witnesses said legislation proposed in Congress would erode Second Amendment rights.
“We know that universal gun background checks would be a serious peril to civil liberties,” said David Kopel, a professor of constitutional law at Denver University.
LaPierre said a previous ban on assault weapons did nothing to reduce crime. He also called expanding background checks useless “because criminals will never submit to them.”
Guards were forced to turn people away from a packed hearing room that included people sporting stickers saying “Stop Gun Violence Now” as well as NRA members.
There were also a few heated exchanges, especially after Durbin told LaPierre, “You missed that point (on background checks) completely!”
Background checks would mean “criminals won’t go to purchase the guns, because there will be a background check!,” Durbin said.
The crowed snickered loudly when one witness, Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women’s Forum, said assault weapons should not be banned because women need “scary looking guns” to fend off possible attackers.
Baltimore Police Chief James Johnson was applauded when he said, “The best way from stopping a bad guy from getting a gun in the first place is a good background check,” a dig at LaPierre’s often repeated remark that “the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Most of the nearly four-hour hearing centered on the proposed expansion of federal background checks to dealers and individuals who sell weapons at gun shows and on the Internet. That may indicate that Senate Democrats have decided to spend less energy on proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazine that are less politically viable.
Blumenthal introduced into the hearing’s official record an opinion piece that ran in The Washington Post Wednesday written by Mark and Jackie Barden, parents of Sandy Hook victim Daniel Barden.
“If this nation uses this moment to make the future brighter for other children, Daniel’s life and the lives of his classmates and educators will have meaning for years to come,” the Bardens wrote.
Blumenthal also read the “Sandy Hook Promise,” which pledges to honor the school’s victims by “doing everything I can to support common sense solutions that would make my community and my nation safer from this type of violence.”
Blumenthal asked LaPierre, “Will you take the Sandy Hook Promise?”
LaPierre said the NRA’s “Sandy Hook Promise” is to advocate armed guards in school and better prosecution of those who break existing gun laws and bring pressure on those who make violent video games to tone them down.
Although there seemed to be little agreement among Republicans and Democrats at the hearing, Blumenthal was optimistic.
“Whatever impressions may be left by this morning’s proceedings, I think there is a real potential for bipartisan common ground on this issue,” Blumenthal said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he tried to build consensus, “but it’s obvious more has to be done.”
Leahy said his goal is to craft comprehensive gun control legislation by culling from the many gun bills Democrats have introduced and submit that bill to his committee for consideration in February.