Immigration What? Senate Steers Back to Gun Control

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.