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Gabrielle Giffords against NRA’s Wayne LaPierre in hearing: Live | News | National Post

WASHINGTON — The former U.S. congresswoman who was shot in the head in a 2011 mass shooting made a dramatic appeal to Congress on Wednesday for tougher gun control legislation, saying, “too many children are dying.”

“Speaking is difficult. But I need to say something important,” surprise witness Gabrielle Giffords said carefully. It was Congress’ first gun control hearing since the fatal 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 U.S. 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.

“Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you,” Giffords said.

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

NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre said gun control measures had failed in the past “and will fail again in the future.” 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.

“Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of deranged criminals,” LaPierre said.

LaPierre also conceded that in a reversal, the NRA no longer supports universal background checks for gun owners. He said the current system is a failure because the administration doesn’t prosecute potential violators aggressively.

LaPierre’s statement had a milder tone than recent NRA remarks, including a television ad that called Obama an “elitist hypocrite” for voicing doubts about the NRA proposal of armed guards in every school in the country while his own children are protected that way at their school. While Obama’s children have Secret Service protection, officials at their school have said its own guards don’t carry guns.