WASHINGTON, D.C. — A Capitol Hill hearing on gun control Wednesday brought together both sides of the debate, but the sharp differences on display showed that common ground could prove to be elusive.
The high-profile hearing was the opening act in what’s likely to be a lengthy and contentious drama about public safety, law enforcement, mental health and personal liberty. But time might not be on the side of those who are pushing for changes in gun laws.
“They understand their best chance to get this done is to do it soon,” said Robert Spitzer, chairman of the Political Science Department at the State University of New York at Cortland, and author of “The Politics of Gun Control.”
“What should America do about gun violence?” was the subject of the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, that came seven weeks after a massacre in Newtown, Conn. that left 20 elementary school children, as well as six adults victims, dead.
While no clear-cut answer emerged from the nearly four-hour hearing, former Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who has become a symbol of the effort to change the laws since she was shot in the head two years ago at an outdoor town meeting in Tucson, expressed a sentiment that both sides would seem to embrace.
“Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important,” she said. “Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying.”
But after that, the questions and testimony revealed the divide that has long defined the debate over gun control.
James Johnson, chief of police in Baltimore County, Md., said Congress needed to extend background checks to gun shows, where 40 percent of guns sales occur.
“The best way to stop a bad guy from getting a gun is a good background check in the first place,” said Johnson, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence.
Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, said that background checks don’t work, nor do more gun laws.
“We could dramatically cut crimes with guns if we started enforcing the 9,000 federal laws on the books,” he said.
Giffords’ husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, said better background checks could have stopped the Tucson shooter, Jared Loughner, from buying a gun.
“My wife would not have been sitting here today if we had stronger background checks,” said Kelly, a gun owner.
Following the hearing, the couple met at the White House with President Barack Obama, who has made gun control a centerpiece of his second term. Obama will continue to press his case on guns in Minneapolis on Monday.
In an interview Wednesday on Telemundo, Spanish language TV, the president said, “What we’re looking for here has nothing to do with taking away peoples’ guns … We’re talking about some common-sense things.”
The shock of the bloodshed in Newtown, which followed a rash of recent mass shootings, galvanized supporters of gun restrictions and prompted new legislation in Congress from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as tightening background checks.
But gun rights advocates have mobilized, too, opposing efforts to curb guns or ammunition and promoting the enforcement of existing laws, prosecuting gun crimes and focusing on mental health issues.
“This is such a hard debate because people have such fixed positions,” Feinstein said.
Even if her bill moves to the floor, and there’s no guarantee it will, Republicans and Democrats are divided on its core components. No Republican senator has expressed support for Feinstein’s bill, while the Democratic members of the committee included four of the co-sponsors. They even disagree about some of the smaller things, such as whether existing laws are used to the fullest to prosecute criminals.
The political calendar could also affect the debate, as the 2014 midterm elections loom. Despite the Newtown tragedy, guns and the Second Amendment hold a firm place in the culture, and the issue could prove thorny next year for a number of Democrats who come from Republican-leaning states.
Still, a January poll by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health found that 69 percent of those surveyed favored a ban on military-style assault rifles such as those used in recent murder sprees at an Aurora, Colo., theater and at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Nearly an identical number favored restrictions on high-capacity ammunition clips, such as the one used in the Arizona shooting that injured Giffords.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a staunch supporter of gun restrictions, told Giffords and her husband, “There should have been a hearing like this after Tucson.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a gun owner, suggested people might need larger ammunition clips to protect themselves and their families.
“In some circumstances, the 15-round magazine makes perfect sense,” he said.
Spitzer said the current script reads a lot like it did after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. The Senate passed new gun restrictions with Republican support and a tiebreaking vote from then-Vice President Al Gore. The bill languished in the House, giving the National Rifle Association time to organize opposition. The House ultimately rejected it.
“Republican leaders had no desire to deal with that then,” Spitzer said. “We’re kind of in that spot.”