Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously injured in the mass shooting that killed six people in Tucson, Ariz. two years ago, sits with her husband, Mark Kelly, right, a retired astronaut, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, prior to speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on what lawmakers should do to curb gun violence in the wake of last month's shooting rampage at that killed 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Ct. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, grievously wounded in a 2011 mass shooting, made an emotional plea on Wednesday for Congress to take action to curb gun violence in the aftermath of last month's Connecticut school massacre, urging lawmakers to "be bold, be courageous."

Wearing a red jacket and speaking haltingly, Giffords appeared as the first person to testify before the first congressional hearing on gun violence since the December 14 incident in which a gunman shot dead 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

Responding to outrage across the country following the Connecticut massacre, President Barack Obama and other Democrats are seeking the largest gun-control package in decades.

"This is an important conversation for our children, for our communities, for Democrats and Republicans," Giffords, who survived a head wound in an assassination attempt last year in Tucson, Arizona, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. Six people were killed and 13 wounded in the incident.

"Speaking is difficult. But I need to say something important," she told the senators. "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."

Accompanied by her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, she concluded: "You must act. Be bold, be courageous. Americans are counting on you. Thank you." She did not take questions from the committee.

Kelly also testified. The couple recently founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group intended to combat gun violence.

"Gabby and I are pro-gun ownership. We are also anti-gun violence. And we believe that in this debate, Congress should look not towards special interests and ideology - which push us apart - but towards compromise, which brings us together," Kelly told the senators.

Others set to testify include National Rifle Association Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre, whose group is an influential opponent of gun restrictions.

Obama's proposals to curb gun violence include reinstating the U.S. ban on military-style "assault" weapons, limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines, and more extensive background checks of prospective gun buyers, largely to verify whether they have a history of crime or mental illness.

Republicans and some pro-gun Democrats envision a more modest package. It is unclear whether there is sufficient support in the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-led House of Representatives to pass any gun restrictions beyond improved background checks.

POLITICAL REALITY

The calls for gun control - so prominent during the emotional days following the shootings in Connecticut - will face political reality in Congress.

The committee chairman, Senator Patrick Leahey, made clear whatever measures would be considered to rein in gun violence, there would be no move to erode the fundamental right of Americans to own a gun, which is protected under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"Americans have the right to have guns in their home to protect their family," he said.

Americans must come together on the issue, Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, added.

Most Republicans and some Democrats in Congress favor gun rights and represent constituents who do as well. The NRA has called any attempt to restrict weapon sales an assault on Americans' constitutional right to bear arms.

In recent days, some Republican lawmakers have joined Democrats in emphasizing better background checks of gun buyers, rather than Obama's plan to ban the sale of rapid-firing assault weapons like the one used in the Connecticut shootings.

The NRA's plan for securing schools has revolved around putting armed guards on campuses. In a statement released Tuesday that he plans to give before the Senate panel on Wednesday, LaPierre sounded a familiar refrain of gun-rights supporters, calling on better enforcement of existing gun laws rather than new laws.

"We need to look at the full range of mental health issues, from early detection and treatment, to civil commitment laws, to privacy laws that needlessly prevent mental health records from being included in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System," he said.

Federally licensed firearms dealers are required to run background checks for criminal records on gun buyers. But the government estimates that 40 percent of purchasers avoid screening by getting their guns from private sellers, including those at gun shows.

The White House's plan would require screening for all prospective buyers.

The background check provision is generally regarded as the gun-control measure most likely to receive bipartisan support, but even it could face some difficulty.

Although Obama's Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in seats in the U.S. Senate, the president's call to revive the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 faces an uphill fight.

(Editing by David Lindsey and Will Dunham)

Comments are closed.