Giffords surprise witness as Congress talks guns



Washington: Congress took up gun control measures for the first time today since the shooting of 20 young students in Connecticut in December pushed the long-sensitive issue to the top of President Barack Obama's agenda for his second term.

The nation's most powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose divided members reflect the wider debate that gun limits will face on a path through Congress that promises to be difficult.

Surprise witness Gabrielle Giffords, a former congresswoman who was shot in the head in a 2011mass shooting, opened the hearing with a carefully spoken plea as she continues to recover: "We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. ... Be bold, be courageous."

Obama this month proposed a package that includes banning military-style assault weapons, requiring background checks on all firearms purchases and limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.

The US has the world's highest rate of gun ownership, and gun sales have jumped since the Connecticut shooting as some fear that the government will take their guns away. The Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms, but some argue that the country's founding fathers more than two centuries ago couldn't have foreseen the speed and power of today's weapons.

Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, who are both gun owners, have formed a political action committee called Americans for Responsible Solutions to back lawmakers who support tighter gun restrictions and counter the influence of the NRA, which is known to punish lawmakers who stray from its point of view.

Kelly described to the panel today how Giffords' shooter fired 33 bullets in 15 seconds and was stopped when he paused to reload.

"We are simply two reasonable Americans who have said 'Enough,'" Kelly said.

The NRA has led past efforts to block stricter gun regulations, and it has promised to do it now.

In testimony prepared for today's hearing but released yesterday, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said gun control measures had failed in the past. He instead expressed support for better enforcement of existing laws, stronger school security and better government's ability to keep guns from mentally unstable people.

PTI