WASHINGTON — Immigration reform had its 15 minutes of fame this week, but the spotlight sharply swung back to the equally explosive issue of gun control today thanks to a packed Senate hearing surprisingly opened by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.).
“Speaking is difficult. But I need to say something important. Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something,” Giffords said. “It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you.”
But it wasn’t just the brief, halting statement from the retired congresswoman wounded in a 2011 mass shooting that made the Judiciary Committee the must-attend hearing of the day. At one end of the witness table was Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, at the other was the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre.
And the experts in the middle were hardly filler, either, as one attorney’s advocacy of the AR-15 as an ideal weapon for women sparked a firestorm of online debate.
“Young women are speaking out as to why AR-15 weapons are their weapon of choice,” said Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women’s Forum. “The guns are accurate. They have good handling. They’re light. They’re easy for women to hold. And most importantly, their appearance. An assault weapon in the hands of a young woman defending her babies in her home becomes a defense weapon. And the peace of mind that a woman has as she’s facing three, four, five violent attackers, intruders in her home with her children screaming in the background — the peace of mind that she has knowing that she has a scary-looking gun gives her more courage when she’s fighting hardened violent criminals.”
“And if we ban these types of assault weapons, you are putting women at a great disadvantage, more so than men, because they do not have the same type of physical strength and opportunity to defend themselves in a hand-to-hand struggle,” Trotter added.
And on the dais were lawmakers with impassioned histories in the gun-control debate, from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), fresh from her new attempt to revive her 1994 assault weapons ban, to 2nd Amendment proponents on the right.
Before the hearing, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wrote to Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) to ask that the panel allow firearms displays at future hearings on the subject.
“Our offices worked with various officials in local and federal law enforcement, as well as the Senate Sergeant at Arms, but it appears that the requirements to secure the weapons at the hearing are so impractical as to be unworkable,” the senators wrote.
“Our goal is simple — to educate fellow Senators and members of the public how and why firearms are used by millions of law-abiding Americans for self-defense, hunting, and sporting purposes.”
Despite the lack of props, Graham invoked some imagery by noting that he owns an AR-15.
“I have an AR-15 at home and I haven’t hurt anybody and I don’t intend to do it. But I think I would be better off protecting my business or my family if there was law-and-order breakdown in my community, people roaming around my neighborhood to have the AR-15, and I don’t think that makes me an unreasonable person,” Graham said.
The senator noted the “giggles” throughout the room when Trotter advocated the weapon for women.
“Let’s agree on one thing. One bullet in the hands of the wrong person, we should all try to prevent,” Graham said. “But when you start telling me that I am unreasonable for wanting that woman [protecting her family] to have more than six bullets, or to have an AR-15 if people are roaming around my neighborhood, I reject the concept.”
Kelly argued that he and his wife, who jumped headlong into gun-control advocacy after the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., “believe wholly and completely in the Second Amendment and that it confers upon all Americans the right to own a firearm for protection, collection, and recreation.”
“We aren’t here as victims. We’re speaking to you today as Americans. We’re a lot like many of our fellow citizens following this debate about gun violence. We’re moderates. Gabby was a Republican long before she was a Democrat,” Kelly said.
“We’re both gun owners and we take that right and the responsibilities that come with it very seriously. …Our rights are paramount, but our responsibilities are serious. And as a nation, we’re not taking responsibility for the gun rights that our founding fathers have conferred upon us.”
Witness David Kopel, a constitutional law professor and research director for the Independence Institute, said “gun controls don’t violate the Second Amendment if they are constructed so they don’t violate the rights of law-abiding citizens, and they actually do something constructive, significant, and effective to protect law-abiding citizens.”
And the assault weapons ban, he stressed, didn’t meet that criteria. “I warned during that testimony then that it was based not on the function of guns, or how fast they fired, or how powerful they were, but on superficial, cosmetic characteristics and accessories,” Kopel said, stressing that a final study after the bill’s sunset “concluded that the law had done nothing.”
“It had not saved lives. It had not reduced the number of bullets that were fired in crimes. It had been a failure.”
He added that Great Britain “shows the perils of mass gun confiscation that some people have proposed.”
“It has a higher violent crime rate than the United States, and especially high rate of home invasion burglaries,” Kopel testified. “Congress has repeatedly outlawed gun registration because of the accurate recognition that another country’s, and in the United States — in New York City, gun registration has been used as a tool for confiscation.”
LaPierre continued the post-Newtown NRA message of putting armed security in schools. “It’s time to throw an immediate blanket of security around our children,” he said.
“Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals, nor do we believe that government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families,” said the NRA chief.
Feinstein congenially acknowledged that she and LaPierre have “tangled,” but other than telling him “you look pretty good, actually” she didn’t direct any questions his way.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), on the other hand, was eager to tangle with LaPierre.
LaPierre encouraged a focus on getting criminals off the streets and enforcing gun laws already on the books. “My problem with background checks is, you’re never going to get criminals to go through universal background checks,” he said. “I mean they’re — all the law abiding people, you’ll create an enormous federal bureaucracy, unfunded, hitting all of the little people in the country will have to go through it, pay the fees, pay the taxes. We don’t even prosecute anybody right now who goes through the system we have.”
“So, we’re going to make all those law abiding people go through the system, and then we aren’t going to prosecute any of the bad guys if they do catch one. And none of it makes any sense in the real world. We have 80,000 police families in the NRA. We care about safety. We’ll support what works.”
“Mr. LaPierre, that’s the point. The criminals won’t go to purchase the guns because there will be a background check. We’ll stop them from the original purchase. You miss that point completely,” snapped Durbin, sparking a smattering of applause in the hearing room, gavel-banging from Leahy, and an argument with LaPierre.
“The biggest problem in Chicago… we are awash in guns,” Durbin argued. “The confiscation of guns per capita in Chicago is six times the number of New York City. We have guns everywhere. And some believe the solution to this is more guns. I disagree.”
Durbin asked LaPierre if he felt Americans needed guns to protect themselves from the government.
“Senator, I think without any doubt, if you look at why our founding fathers put it there, they had lived under the tyranny of King George and they wanted to make sure that these free people in this new country would never be subjugated again and have to live under tyranny,” LaPierre said.
“I also think, though, that what people all over the country fear today is being abandoned by their government,” he continued. “If a tornado hits, if a hurricane hits, if a riot occurs that they’re gonna be out there alone. And the only way they’re gonna protect themselves in the cold and the dark, when they’re vulnerable, is with a firearm. And I think that indicates how relevant and essential the Second Amendment is in today’s society to fundamental human survival.”
Baltimore County Police Chief James Johnson, who chairs the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, called that view “scary, creepy.”
“And it’s simply just not based on logic,” he added. “Certainly, law enforcement across this nation is well-prepared to deal with any natural or man-made disaster that will occur.”
“I can’t either. I can’t relate to the need of that man in Aurora, Colorado, to have a 100-round drum, 100 cartridges,” Durbin said.
Kopel told Durbin his line of questioning was off-base since senators are talking about banning much smaller magazines.
“It’s about saving lives with ordinary magazines. Hundred magazines are novelties that are not used by police officers or hunters or most other people,” Kopel said. “But what you’re talking about banning, senator, is normal magazines.”
“I think if we follow Senator Schumer’s approach and say we’re gonna follow what the District of Columbia v. Heller Supreme Court decision says, what that tells you is the core of the Second Amendment is the firearms and accessories that are commonly owned by law abiding people for legitimate purposes,” he said.
When Graham asked if it is constitutional to cap a magazine at 10 rounds versus 15, Kopel responded, “Ten is plainly unconstitutional, because, as I was trying to explain to Senator Durbin, magazines of up to 19 are common on semiautomatic handguns.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) panned Republican responses that the solution to reducing mass killings was broader than gun control and included everything from mental health to violent video games.
“Not including guns when discussing mass killings is like not including cigarettes when discussing lung cancer,” Schumer said. “…It is now settled law that the government is never going to take away America’s guns. Progressives need not to accept this decision, but to endorse it. We’ve got to follow it, not just de jour, but de facto. You can’t argue for an expansive reading of amendments like the First, Fourth and Fifth, but see the Second Amendment through the pinhole of saying it only affects militias.”
“At the same time, those on the pro-gun side must recognize no amendment is absolute …Now, at the moment, right now, as we meet here today, I am having productive conversations with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, including a good number with high NRA ratings. And I’m hopeful that we are close to having legislation we can introduce.”
It remains to be seen if any of those Republicans involved in such a deal would be those sitting on the Judiciary Committee.
“It would be my preference if we could find a way to put an end to events like this without doing violence to the Constitution and also without leaving law-abiding citizens more vulnerable to crime,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
“Anything that falls short of serious examination and discussion is just window dressing, just symbolism over substance,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “I have a hard time telling my constituents in Texas that Congress is looking at passing a whole raft of new laws, when the laws that we currently have on the books are so woefully unenforced.”
“Above all, we should not rush to pass legislation that will not reduce mass killings. Banning guns based on their appearance does not make sense. The 1994 assault weapon ban did not stop Columbine. The Justice Department found the ban ineffective. Scholars have indicated that refining or expanding such legislation will not cut gun violence,” said Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
“We hear that no one needs to carry larger magazines than those that hunters used to shoot deer, but an attacking criminal, unlike a deer, shoots back.”