Giffords (D-Ariz.) was the first witness called by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in a hearing that served as the congressional kickoff for a bitter fight about guns.
Other witnesses included her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who has joined her in a push to tighten gun laws. And at the other end of the witness table — and on the other side of the issue — was Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s articulate, combative spokesman in Washington.
Four hours later, a lot had been said and very little had been settled. The memory of Giffords’s appearance gradually lost its solemn hold on the participants. At one point, a female gun rights advocate told a Democratic senator that he could not understand the appeal of a high-capacity ammunition magazine because he is “a large man” who doesn’t feel as vulnerable as a woman.
But by the end, one thing seemed clearer: A consensus is emerging among lawmakers for an expansion of background checks for gun buyers, a proposal with far more bipartisan support than a reinstatement of the federal assault-weapons ban.
“Universal background checks is a proven, effective step we can take to reduce gun violence,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at the hearing. “And I believe it has a good chance of passing.”
The purpose of the hearing was to shape gun legislation that can pass a splintered Congress. Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said he expects the panel to craft a bill by next month.
Schumer has led the charge on mandating background checks for all firearms purchases, ending an exemption for sales at gun shows.
Also Wednesday, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) announced a new bipartisan measure to make gun trafficking a federal crime.
The hearing was a quiet — and mainly polite — discussion of violence.
Opponents of gun control told stories of homeowners shooting intruders in terrified self-defense. Supporters talked about the shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 elementary school students, six school staffers, the gunman and his mother dead in December. And they noted more recent violence: a shooting in Chicago on Tuesday that killed a 15-year-old girl who had come to Washington during the inaugural weekend, and a shooting Wednesday in Phoenix that injured at least three at an office building; it happened during the hearing.
The forum began with reminders of Jan. 8, 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner shot Giffords and 18 others at an event in a Tucson parking lot. She survived, partially blind and paralyzed in her right arm. Six in the crowd died.