Kirk, Giffords see lives intersect, again, over gun control
On Wednesday morning, as U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk was introducing bipartisan gun trafficking legislation, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, issuing a halting plea to Congress to "be bold. Be courageous," on gun control.
For the third time in as many Januaries, the timing of these events was coincidental, yet profound.
The fellow Cornell University alums who became close colleagues while serving together in the U.S. House have seen evidence of the fragility and unfairness of life firsthand.
Their injuries -- Giffords' bullet wound to the head in an Arizona shooting and Kirk's ischemic stroke that began en route to a Chicago event -- forced time removed from the political careers they spent decades building. Both the blue dog Democrat and moderate Republican have emerged, transformed, as central forces in the nation's gun control debate.
Kirk, newly returned to Congress after his stroke in January 2012, joined New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Wednesday to formally introduce bipartisan legislation that would for the first time make gun trafficking a federal crime.
Giffords, who was shot by a gunman in her Arizona district in January 2011, Wednesday served as a powerful reminder about the effects of gun violence.
"Speaking is difficult but I need to say something important," Giffords said to the panel, of which Illinois' senior senator, Dick Durbin of Springfield, is a member. "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."
Both could face a steep road in their new gun control fights as firearm advocates have been just as vocal on the other side, focusing on their constitutional protections.
At the Senate committee hearing, a top National Rifle Association official rejected proposals to ban assault weapons and said the White House isn't doing enough to enforce the law as it is.
Even if stronger background checks did identify a criminal, "as long as you let him go, you're not keeping him from getting a gun and you're not preventing him from getting to the next crime scene," Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, said. He called poor enforcement "a national disgrace."
Kirk and Giffords did not meet on Wednesday, according to Kirk's staff, and he did not attend the hearing. But it is the latest chapter in a tale of lawmakers whose lives have intersected during tragic events.
In an interview two years ago on the day Giffords was shot, Kirk described how he and Giffords traveled some of the same paths to the nation's capital.
They bonded in the House as they both pushed moderate viewpoints and tried to reach across the aisle, albeit from different sides of it.
Giffords, like Kirk, graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. She inherited Kirk's Longworth Building House office after his election to the Senate.
He described Giffords as a "thoughtful, effective legislator" who, no matter the circumstance, remained "very upbeat, always smiling."
They also worked together on U.S.-China relations. On the day of the shooting, Kirk recalled speaking to Giffords a day or two after he had been sworn in to fill the remainder of President Barack Obama's expiring senatorial term.
"She was joking with me, asking who was going to work on China now that (I had left the House)," Kirk said then.
Giffords stepped down from her seat last year, the three-term Democrat's last day in Congress marked by a slow but steady walk down the center aisle of the lower chamber, clasping, at times, the outstretched hands of colleagues.
Kirk made a triumphant return to the U.S. Capitol this month, warmly embracing colleagues before climbing the upper chamber's 45 steps, counting softly to himself along the way.
Kirk's injury is very different from Giffords', and there's no reason to believe he'll do anything but finish out the remaining four years of his term.
Now, as they both continue to recover, the lives of Giffords and Kirk are intertwined again.
Kirk was a leader on gun control issues in his five terms in the House of Representatives. Shortly before he and Gillibrand announced the gun trafficking legislation, the senators released a joint video noting "illegal guns are flowing into cities around the country and used by gangs and other criminal organizations to terrorize our communities."
"Gun traffic allows gangs to flourish in Chicagoland," Kirk said. He cited figures tying gun trafficking to 80 percent of homicides in Chicago.
The legislation would establish harsh penalties for trafficking, including a maximum prison sentence of 20 years for those who sell or transfer two or more firearms to those who might not be legally permitted to own them or those who provide false information to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The legislation also calls for substantially increased penalties for trafficking when committed by or in connection with members of gangs, cartels, organized crime rings or other criminal enterprises.
In addition to the legislation with Gillibrand, Kirk is working with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin on finding "an amenable background check proposal" for people seeking to acquire guns, according to a top aide in his office.