WASHINGTON - The toll of gun violence and the widespread disgust it has generated makes it time for new federal gun curbs that balance public safety with gun rights, Democrats said Tuesday at the Senate's latest hearing on restricting firearms.
Republicans said today's unenforced gun laws give criminals no reason to fear ignoring them. And they warned that the Constitution's right to bear arms must be protected, even after unspeakable events like the December slaughter of 20 first-graders in Connecticut.
Each side trotted out their own legal experts, statistics and even relatives of people slain by gun-wielding assailants. In the end there was little partisan agreement, though Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said cooperation was possible on stopping straw purchases, in which someone legally buys a gun for a criminal or a person barred from owning one.
As always with guns, emotion and the issue's personal impact colored the day's session.
The crowded hearing room was filled with people from gun control groups and according to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., included relatives of some killed in the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee holding the hearing, asked friends and families of gun victims to stand, and dozens rose.
"We know that we have to act," Durbin said.
At another point, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., began his questioning of the panel's first witness, Timothy J. Heaphy, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Virginia and an appointee of President Barack Obama, with one question: "Do you own a gun?"
"No," responded Heaphy, who said, "I do not feel comfortable having a gun in our home" because he has children.
One witness, Suzanna Gratia Hupp, told the senators of being in a cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, in 1991 when a gunman smashed his truck through the front window and fatally shot 23 people, including her parents. Hupp says she left her gun in her car because Texas law barred her from bringing it into the restaurant.
"I don't view myself as a victim of gun violence," said Hupp, now a Texas state official and gun rights advocate. "I view myself as a victim of a maniac who happened to use a gun as a tool. And I view myself as the victim of the legislators we had at the time who left me defenseless."
Taking the opposing view was Sandra J. Wortham, whose brother, Chicago police officer Thomas E. Wortham IV, was fatally shot outside their parents' home by robbers in 2010, though he and his father, a retired police sergeant, fired back.
"The fact that they were armed that night didn't prevent Thomas' murder," said Wortham, now a Chicago police official.
The hearing came just hours before Obama was to deliver his annual State of the Union address, in which he was expected to repeat his call for gun curbs.
Obama has proposed banning assault weapons and ammunition magazines that can carry more than 10 rounds, and wants background checks for all firearms purchases. Currently, the checks are required only for sales by federally licensed gun dealers, omitting the many transactions at gun shows and between individuals.
Democrats have been more receptive to Obama's proposals than Republicans, most of whom - along with the National Rifle Association - have opposed them.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who plans to write gun legislation soon, called for expanded background checks and cracking down on straw purchases, but said nothing about banning assault weapons or high capacity magazines. In a written statement, he suggested that the First Amendment would limit government attempts to reduce violence in popular culture and said the entertainment industry should be "a responsible leader in this area."
Cruz, top Republican on the panel, expressed sympathy for gun victims but said constitutional rights must be protected "not just when they're popular, but especially when passions are seeking to restrict and limit those rights."
In the battle of statistics, Cruz said that of the six cities with the nation's highest murder rates, five - Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago - have tough anti-gun laws. Only Memphis, Tenn., has less vigorous firearms controls, he said.
Responding to Cruz, Heaphy, the U.S. attorney, said there are too many factors that influence crime to conclude that strict gun measures don't work.
Graham said that of 80,000 federal background checks for gun purchases turned down annually by the FBI, barely any result in prosecutions. He said the odds of being prosecuted for lying on a background check are "probably a whole lot less than being struck by lightning or hit by a meteor."
Democrats cited the 11,000 Americans killed annually by gunfire.
Daniel W. Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, which favors tighter gun control laws, said that 2004 data showed that nearly 8 in 10 prisoners who committed gun-related crimes got firearms from unlicensed private sellers, whose transactions do not require background checks. That, he said, underscored the need to expand those checks to all sales.
Laurence H. Tribe, a liberal Harvard Law School professor, said that 2008 and 2010 Supreme Court rulings made it clear that sweeping proposals to flatly take guns away from citizens "have been decisively taken off the table." Banning assault weapons and other especially lethal firearms would not violate the Second Amendment's right to bear arms, he said.
But conservative attorney Charles J. Cooper, who has long defended gun rights and represented the NRA, said the court's rulings ensure that bearing arms "is not to be treated as a second-class right, or singled out for special or unfavorable treatment."