Last updated: January 30, 2013 11:09 pm

Gun control debate moves to Senate

Retired NASA astronaut and Navy Capt. Mark Kelly (R) and his wife, shooting victim and former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) (C) arrive for a Senate Judiciary Committee followed by Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) before hearing about gun control on Capitol Hill January 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. Giffords delivered an opening statment to the committee, which met for the first time since the mass shooting at a Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticu©Getty

Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who was severely injured during a mass shooting in Arizona two years ago, implored lawmakers on Wednesday to take bold action to stop massacres in the US, as the divisive battle over gun control moved to Capitol Hill.

But the National Rifle Association continued to push back against the very suggestion of limitations, presenting shooting rampages as a failure of mental health services, rather than the result of access to weapons.

Gun control is now firmly on Congress’s agenda this year, following the Obama administration’s vow to respond to the Newtown school shootings in December that claimed 26 lives.

Conscious of the political sensitivity of the issue – many Americans closely guard their constitutional right to bear arms – President Barack Obama has signed almost two dozen executive orders aimed at ensuring guns stay out of dangerous hands rather than waiting for Congress to act.

But on the big issues – such as banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines like those used in Newtown – Congress must pass new legislation.

“Speaking is difficult but I need to say something important: Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying,” Ms Giffords told the Senate judiciary committee at a hearing on gun violence, speaking slowly and reading from a script.

After she was shot in the head during a constituent meeting in Tucson in 2011, she struggles to speak and walk. “We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you” Ms Giffords said.

Ms Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, have set up a group called Americans For Responsible Solutions, promising to “launch a national dialogue and raise funds to counter influence of the gun lobby”.

Mr Kelly expanded on her statement, calling on Congress to close the loopholes that allow people to buy weapons at gun shows or through private sales without undergoing a background check and to enact a tough federal gun trafficking statute.

“And finally, let’s have a careful and civil conversation about the lethality of firearms we permit to be legally bought and sold in this country,” he said, a vague reference to calls for an assault weapon ban.

Military-style automatic weapons were banned during the Clinton administration in 1994, but the ban expired after a decade. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic senator from California, is now pushing to reinstate it but faces tough opposition from lawmakers in both parties.

The US was afflicted by a spate of mass shootings involving semi-automatic assault weapons last year, including in Colorado and Wisconsin, as well as in Newtown, Connecticut.

An AR-15 assault rifle – the same type of weapon used in the Newtown shootings – was used by a 15-year-old boy in New Mexico last week to kill his parents and three younger siblings.

Ms Giffords appearance before the Senate committee came on the day a six-year-old boy in Alabama was taken hostage by a man who snatched him from a school bus after fatally shooting the driver, and another gunman wounded three people at an office complex in Phoenix, Arizona.

But Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the NRA, the influential pro-gun lobby group, rejected the idea of a new ban, saying that studies had found that the 1994 prohibition had “no impact on lowering crime”.

He also pushed back against the suggestion of closing the gun show loophole. “Background checks will never be ‘universal,’ because criminals will never submit to them,” he said.

Instead, he reiterated his previous suggestion that armed guards should be placed in schools to stop mass shootings like that in Newtown.

“It’s time to throw an immediate blanket of security around our children,” Mr LaPierre said, by placing more armed guards outside school buildings.

Separately, groups of senators are launching their own efforts to bring in tougher gun rules. Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Mark Kirk on Wednesday introduced a bill to make gun trafficking a federal crime.

“Our bipartisan bill will save lives. It is not a Republican or Democratic idea, it is just the right idea,” Ms Gillibrand said. “The absence of any federal law defining gun trafficking in this country is shocking. It is time to give law enforcement the tools they need to keep illegal guns off the streets and out of the hands of dangerous people.”

Mr Kirk is also working with fellow Republican Tom Coburn and Democrats Charles Schumer and Joe Manchin on a proposal to strengthen and expand background checks for people who want to buy guns.

Although these bipartisan efforts are under way, analysts say that passing any restriction on guns through the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-dominated House will be exceptionally difficult, given the political sensitivity of the issue.

Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat, last week introduced a bill to ban the manufacture and sale of 150 types of semi-automatic weapons, including handguns with magazines that can hold more than 10 bullets.

But in a sign of how divisive the issue is even among Democrats, Harry Reid, the majority leader in the Senate who hails from the frontier state of Nevada, has declined to say whether he supports the bill.

A new Gallup poll found that the sharpest divisions between Democrats and Republicans were over guns. Fifty-nine per cent of Republicans and 28 per cent of Democrats said they were satisfied with American gun laws, with the 31-point difference the largest of 17 policy areas surveyed.

“That clearly creates a situation in which the two parties likely disagree on the need or urgency of government action in these areas, which makes passing legislation to address these issues more challenging,” Gallup said.

There were also sharp divisions on immigration reform and federal taxes, two other items at the top of the legislative agenda in Mr Obama’s second term.

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