A determined former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords urged the Senate today in a halting but forceful voice to have "courage" in considering new gun control legislation, and after delivering her emotional plea was received by President Obama at the White House.
Giffords and her husband astronaut Mark Kelly argued for stronger regulations on guns, particularly for closing a loophole in background checks at gun shows. A few seats away from Kelly after Giffords departed sat NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre who derided the proposal.
The hearing began with the dramatic statement by Giffords, whose congressional career was ended by a bullet wound to her head two years ago. Giffords, who is still showing effects from the wound, spoke slowly, enunciating each word carefully. The obvious effort gave the statement added force.
"Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important," she told the panel chaired by Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt.
"Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you. Thank you," Giffords said before being helped out of the hearing room.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama, who has made gun control a priority, was looking forward to seeing Giffords and Kelly at the White House.
Today's hearing is a showdown on guns, featuring two powerful but conflicting forces in the gun control movement. Giffords' husband also testified, as did Wayne LaPierre, the fiery executive vice president and CEO of the National Rifle Association.
Kelly's remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee today emphasized that he and his wife are both gun owners and he has said that he recently bought a new hunting rifle. But he said they are also dedicated to minimizing gun violence because of their personal tragedy.
"We are simply two reasonable Americans who realize we have a problem with gun violence, and we need Congress to act," Kelly said. "Our rights are paramount, but our responsibilities are serious and as a nation we are not taking responsibility for the gun rights our founding fathers conferred upon us."
Kelly said that a top priority should be to close the loophole that says people who buy weapons at gun shows are not required to undergo background checks.
"Closing the gun show loophole and requiring private sellers to require a background check for they transfer a gun…I can't think of something that would make our country safer than doing just that," he told the panel.
Giffords and Kelly recently launched Americans for Responsible Solutions, an organization promoting the implementation of universal background checks and limits on high capacity magazines.
"Overwhelmingly, you told us that universal background checks and limiting access to high capacity magazines were top priorities, and I'll make sure to address each of those ideas in my opening remarks," Kelly wrote in an email to supporters Tuesday. Kelly asked the group's allies to sign a petition calling on Congress to pass legislation on both issues.
LaPierre laid out the NRA's opposition to universal background checks and urged legislators not to "blame" legal gun owners by enacting new gun control laws.
"Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violence of deranged criminals. Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families," LaPierre said."And when it comes to background checks, let's be honest – background checks will never be 'universal' – because criminals will never submit to them."
"If you want to stop crime, interdict violent criminals incarcerate them and get them off the streets," LaPierre said.
He repeated an NRA proposal to place armed security guards in every school in America, arguing that "it's time to throw an immediate blanket of security around our children."
The panel included attorney Gayle Trotter, the only woman in the group, and she pegged herself as the voice for women in the gun violence debate at the hearing.
She told the story of a mother protecting her children from a home invasion by shooting a would-be attacker. Trotter maintained that women need guns because they are at a physical disadvantage against criminals and most protect their "babies."
She described an AR-15 -- the type of weapon used at Newtown -- as the weapon of choice for young women and told the hearing, "I stand for millions of women across this country."
There were audible hisses and moans from the audience and someone said "No, you don't."
The hearing is titled "What Should America Do About Gun Violence?" Others testifying include Professor David Kopel of Denver University's Strum College of Law and Baltimore Chief of Police James Johnson.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who last week introduced a bill which would outlaw 157 semiautomatic weapons, told Politico she was not content with the witnesses called to testify and will hold a hearing of her own.
"I'm concerned and registered my concern with Sen. [Patrick] Leahy yesterday, that the witnesses are skewed to the anti-gun, anti-assault weapons position," Feinstein told Politico. "He agreed that I would be able to do my own hearing on the assault weapons legislation which I will proceed to
An ABC News-Washington Post poll released earlier this month found that 65 percent of those polled supported banning high capacity ammunition magazines while 58 percent favored banning the sale of so-called assault weapons.
Earlier this month President Obama introduced his gun policy agenda, which called for the banning of some assault-style weapons and high capacity magazines holding over 10 rounds. The president's plan included 23 executive actions on gun violence that would not require congressional approval, which included a directive for national agencies to strengthen the criminal background check system.
A new ABC News-Washington Post poll out last week showed 53 percent favored the president's gun control plan while 41 percent viewed it unfavorably.
ABC News' Mary McGuire contributed to this report.