Gun control debate intensifies in Senate hearing

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and chief executive of the National Rifle Assn. testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence.
(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
<i>This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.</i>

WASHINGTON -- There was little common ground between gun-control advocates and opponents at the first congressional hearing on guns since the massacre of children and teachers at Newtown, Conn.

“This is such a hard debate because people have such fixed positions,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said, underscoring the entrenchment on display during the hearing put together to prevent future gun violence.


Headlined by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, Mark Kelly, and National Rifle Assn. Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre, the Senate hearing focused on gun ownership, law enforcement and mental health issues brought to the forefront by the spree of mass shootings last year.

Kelly echoed his wife’s emotional opening to the proceedings, strongly calling for universal background checks that he said would at least delay and impede criminals or mentally troubled individuals from obtaining firearms through legal means.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the committee, engaged in a heated exchange with LaPierre, pressing the NRA leader on his opposition to background checks at gun shows, which currently are subjected to minimal federal regulations.

“Please, Mr. LaPierre, I’m not trying to play games here,” Leahy said curtly following an answer he regarded as insufficient, prompting LaPierre to clearly state his opposition to the background checks.


“It does not make sense to extend the law to hobbyists and private sellers,” LaPierre said, claiming that “the law right now is a failure,” and any background check extensions will be ineffectual due to improper enforcement by federal prosecutors.

The 1994 federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, was roundly criticized by pro-gun witnesses such as David Kopel, a research director at the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Colorado. He warned against following in the ban’s framework.


“It was tried with great sincerity, a lot of people thought it was a good idea, but it didn’t seem to save any lives,” Kopel said.

Kopel contended that a similar ban would be left in the dust by advancements in gun technology, and by loopholes inherent in banning specific kinds of guns or features.


Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative nonprofit organization focused on women’s rights, defended the wildly popular and widely criticized AR-15 automatic rifle, which was used in the Newtown shooting spree.

“An assault weapon in the hands of a young woman defending her babies at home becomes a defense weapon,” she said, alleging that the fearsome appearance of the gun grants the wielder a “peace of mind,” and an inherent advantage over criminals.


Trotter, who was promoting potent firearms as an equalizer for women outmatched by criminals, was met with laughter and a cry of “Not true!” when she claimed that her views represented those of millions of women.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) brought up the fear that future legislation could impede the ability of individuals to fight against the government should federal actions necessitate such action.


LaPierre, pressed on where the NRA stands on such thinking, said that many fear “being abandoned by their government,” claiming that armament is necessitated by the absence of law and order in natural disasters, or in extreme instances such as riots.

“I find it to be scary, creepy and just not based on logic,” Baltimore Police Chief Jim Johnson said of LaPierre’s accusation that law enforcement can be outstripped to such a degree that citizens must arm themselves to fill in the void.


Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) disagreed.

“You could find yourself in a lawless environment in this country,” he said, later adding that “I do believe in some instances the 15-round magazine makes sense, in some circumstances the AR-15 makes sense.”


[For the record, 1:04 p.m. Jan. 30: An earlier version of this post identified Gabrielle Giffords as a former Republican congresswoman. She is a Democrat.]

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