WASHINGTON -- The plague of gun violence makes it plain that current firearms restrictions are insufficient and new federal limits are needed, Sen. Dick Durbin said Tuesday at a Senate hearing on gun control. Parrying that, a Republican said gun rights must be protected, even amid horrors like the mass shooting of school children in Connecticut.
"There are too many families who now face an empty seat at the dinner table" because of gun violence, said Durbin, chairman of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. He said that while opponents of stricter gun limits claim that existing laws simply need to be better enforced, "that's not enough. There are so many gaps in those laws."
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Durbin said restrictions such as requiring background checks for all gun purchases could be written that would still protect the Constitution's Second Amendment right to bear arms. Currently, such checks are required only for sales by licensed federal dealers.
At one point in the packed hearing, Durbin asked that people with relatives or friends who were victims of gun violence to stand, and several dozen rose from their seats.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, top Republican on the panel, expressed sympathy for those directly affected by gun violence. But he added that constitutional rights must be protected "not just when they're popular, but especially when passions are seeking to restrict and limit those rights."
Cruz said he believed that "stripping the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens does nothing to stop criminals" from committing violent acts.
There has been a renewed focus on guns on Capitol Hill in the wake of the December slayings of 20 first-graders and six adult staffers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Some family members of those shot there were in the hearing room Tuesday, according to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
President Barack Obama wants Congress to enact new curbs, including bans on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines and a requirement that all gun buyers be subject to background checks, not just sales by federally licensed dealers. Obama is expected to push anew for his plans in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
Democrats have been more receptive to Obama's proposals than Republicans, most of whom -- along with the National Rifle Association -- have opposed them.
The universal background check has the broadest support and is expected to be a centerpiece of legislation that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy hopes to write in the next few weeks. The assault weapons ban is given little chance of enactment, and passage of a ban on large-capacity magazines also seems doubtful.
Timothy J. Heaphy, the Obama-appointed U.S. attorney for the western district of Virginia, said in his written statement that the federal background check system has kept more than 1.5 million guns from criminals and others prohibited from having them since 1998, when the system began. Even so, he told the subcommittee that the background check requirement needs to be expanded and he called for federal laws prohibiting illegal gun trafficking.
"Without more meaningful penalties for those who traffic in firearms, we will continue to find it difficult to dismantle the criminal networks that exploit these statutory gaps," he said.
In prepared testimony, Suzanna Gratia Hupp described being in Luby's restaurant in Killeen, Texas, when a gunman crashed his truck through the front window and fatally shot 23 people, including her parents, and wounded many others. Hupp says she left her gun in her car because Texas law barred her from bringing it into the restaurant.
"I can't begin to get across to you how incredibly frustrating it is to sit there, like a fish in a barrel, and wait for it to be your turn, with no hope of defending yourself," said Hupp, now a Republican Texas state official and gun rights advocate.
She added, "The only thing the gun laws did that day was prevent good people from protecting themselves."
Taking a different view was Sandra J. Wortham, whose brother, Thomas E. Wortham IV, was shot dead outside their parents' home by robbers, though he and his father, a retired police sergeant, fired back.
"The fact that my brother and father were armed that night did not prevent my brother from being killed," Wortham said in prepared testimony. "We need to do more to keep guns out of the wrong hands in the first place. I don't think that makes us anti-gun. I think it makes us pro-decent, law-abiding people."
Laurence H. Tribe, a liberal Harvard Law School professor, said in his prepared testimony that nothing Obama has proposed "even comes close to violating the Second Amendment" right to bear arms.
Tribe said more sweeping proposals to take guns away from citizens "have been decisively taken off the table" by Supreme Court rulings in 2008 and 2010 that overturned handgun bans by the District of Columbia and other state and local governments.
Differing from Tribe was attorney Charles J. Cooper, who has long defended gun rights.
Representing the NRA, Cooper said that those same Supreme Court rulings "establish that the Second Amendment guarantees a fundamental, individual right to keep and bear arms." He said Obama's proposed assault weapon and high-capacity magazine bans were unconstitutional because gun rights "cannot be circumscribed by appeal to countervailing government interests."
Also testifying was Daniel W. Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, which favors tighter gun control laws. Webster said in his prepared statement that 2004 data on prisoners who had committed gun-related crimes showed that nearly 8 in 10 had obtained their firearms from unlicensed private sellers, whose transactions do not require background checks.
"Laws such as background check requirements for all gun sales will help law enforcement combat illegal gun trafficking and keep guns from prohibited individuals," he said.