GWEN IFILL: The challenge of gun violence, and the looming political fight over what to do about it, dominated a high-profile hearing today. The Senate Judiciary Committee played host to leading voices from both sides of the debate.
It was a day of drama in the packed hearing room.
FORMER U.S. CONGRESSWOMAN GABRIELLE GIFFORDS, D-Ariz.: This is an important conversation.
GWEN IFILL: Even before the senators had their say, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords stepped up to the microphone to make a brief and halting plea.
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important. Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying, too many children. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you.
GWEN IFILL: Giffords was shot in the head two years ago as she met with constituents in Tucson, Arizona. Six others were killed that day.
Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, have now launched their own campaign for tougher gun laws, capitalizing on the public outcry that followed December’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
MARK KELLY, Husband of Gabrielle Giffords: After 20 kids and six of their teachers were gunned down in their classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary, we said, this time must be different. Something needs to be done. We are simply two reasonable Americans who have said, enough.
GWEN IFILL: But, at today’s hearings, National Rifle Association vice president, Wayne LaPierre, pushed back, insisting that the real solution to gun violence is to enforce existing laws.
WAYNE LAPIERRE, National Rifle Association: Unfortunately, we have seen a dramatic collapse in federal gun prosecutions in recent years.
Overall, in 2011, federal firearms prosecutions per capita were down 35 percent from their peak in the previous administration. That means violent felons, violent gang members and drug dealers with guns and the mentally ill who possess firearms are not being prosecuted.
And that’s completely and totally unacceptable. Proposing more gun control laws, while failing to enforce the thousands we already have, it is not a serious solution for reducing crime.
GWEN IFILL: Several committee Republicans endorsed that argument.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, R-Ala.: And I would just say I would call on President Obama to call in Attorney General Eric Holder and ask him why the prosecutions have dropped dramatically across all categories of federal gun laws.
SEN. JOHN CORNYN, R-Tex.: 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 on the books are so woefully unenforced.
GWEN IFILL: Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, challenged LaPierre on whether the NRA supports limiting gun sales in any fashion.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-Vt.: Now, in your testimony in ’99, you supported mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. You said — quote — “no loopholes anywhere for anyone.”
So, let me ask you this. Do you still, as you did in 1999, still support mandatory background checks at gun shows, yes or no?
WAYNE LAPIERRE: I do not believe the way the law is working now, unfortunately, that it does any good to extend the law to private sales between hobbyists and collectors.
PATRICK LEAHY: OK, so you do not support mandatory background checks in all instances at gun shows?
WAYNE LAPIERRE: We do not because the fact is the law right now is a failure the way it’s working. The fact is that you have 76,000-some people that have been denied under the present law. Only 44 were prosecuted.
GWEN IFILL: Under continued questioning, LaPierre argued that background checks are a burden only on the law-abiding.
WAYNE LAPIERRE: Let’s be honest. Background checks will never be universal because criminals will never submit to them.
GWEN IFILL: Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin vigorously disagreed.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill.: Mr. LaPierre, that’s the point. The criminals won’t go to purchase the guns because there will be a background check. We will stop them from the original purchase. You missed that point completely.
GWEN IFILL: Durbin pointed to Chicago, where there have been 42 homicides just this month, the most violent month since 2002, the latest victim, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who marched with her high school band at the president’s inaugural parade just last week. She was killed yesterday.
RICHARD DURBIN: She attended the university prep school in Chicago. She was an honors student and a majorette, and she marched in the inaugural parade last week here in Chicago. It was the highlight of her young 15-year-old life. Yesterday, in a rainstorm after school, she raced to a shelter. A gunman came in and shot her dead.
Just a matter of days after the happiest day of her life, she’s gone. We are awash in guns. 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.
GWEN IFILL: There was at least tentative agreement on the need for greater mental health care to head off would-be killers. Mark Kelly cited Jared Loughner, his wife’s attacker, as an example.
MARK KELLY: The killer in the Tucson shooting suffered from severe mental illness. But even after being deemed unqualified for service in the Army and expulsion from Pima Community College, he was never reported to mental health authorities.
On November 30 of 2010, he walked into a sporting goods store, passed a background check, and walked out with a semiautomatic handgun. He had never been legally adjudicated as mentally ill, and even if he had, Arizona at the time had over 121,000 records of disqualifying mental illness that it had not submitted into the system.
GWEN IFILL: In turn, the NRA’s LaPierre said it’s the system that’s broken.
WAYNE LAPIERRE: We need to look at the full range of mental health issues, from early detection and treatment, to civil commitment laws, to privacy laws that needlessly prevent mental health records from being included in the national instant check system.
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.
GWEN IFILL: The president and some Senate Democrats are pushing for bans on assault-style weapons and curbs on high-capacity ammunition magazines. And, as the politicians debated in Washington today, three people were wounded at another shooting in Arizona, this one at a Phoenix office complex.
JEFFREY BROWN: We have collected all of our reporting on the gun debate. You will find that on our Web site.