WASHINGTON - Her voice was halting, but not weak.
Two years after being shot in the head by a gunman at a political event, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords appeared at the first congressional hearing since last month's Connecticut school massacre to urge Congress to act now on gun violence.
"Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something," Giffords said in a rare public appearance Wednesday, reading a statement that acknowledged her injuries made it difficult to speak.
"It will be hard, but the time is now," she told the packed hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Americans for Responsible Solutions, the political action committee created by Giffords and her husband, retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, posted a photo on Facebook the statement read by Giffords. The Washington Post says Gifford's speach therapist wrote the statement.
National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre blamed the government for failing to enforce existing gun laws and said new restrictions, including background checks, won't stop criminals from using weapons in violent crime.
"Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals, nor do we believe that government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families," he said.
Democratic senators led by California's Dianne Feinstein, who is proposing a ban on semi-automatic rifles and ammunition magazines exceeding 10 rounds, argued that restricting access to such firepower and expanding background checks to as many gun sales as possible will help.
Giffords' husband, retired astronaut and naval aviator Mark Kelly, called for a "careful and civil conversation" on new gun limits and a broad new acceptance of society's responsibility to keep firearms from dangerous people.
"Our rights are paramount. But our responsibilities are serious," he said. "And as a nation, we are not taking responsibility for the gun rights our founding fathers have conferred upon us."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee's Democratic chairman from Vermont, called for stronger background checks and a crackdown on so-called straw purchases, in which people who can pass background checks buy weapons for others. Leahy has proposed a measure to increase penalties for straw purchasers.
However, Leahy avoided endorsing an expanded ban on the assault-style weapons called for by President Barack Obama and Feinstein.
"Second Amendment rights are the foundation on which our discussion rests. They are not at risk," Leahy said. "But lives are at risk when responsible people fail to stand up for laws that will keep guns out of the hands of those who will use them to commit mass murder. I ask that we focus our discussion on additional statutory measures to better protect our children and all Americans."
The hearing came a few weeks after Obama announced legislative proposals aimed at curbing gun violence following the December 14 shootings that left 20 children and six adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The shooter, Adam Lanza, also killed his mother and himself.
Obama's proposals include a ban on popular semi-automatic rifles that mimic assault weapons, a limit of 10 rounds per magazine, and universal background checks for anyone buying a gun, whether at a store or in a private sale. Guns sold through private sales currently avoid background checks -- the so-called gun show loophole.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said at Wednesday's hearing that he is in talks with colleagues -- including several who are ranked highly by the NRA -- on possible legislation to expand background checks on private gun sales.
Sources close to both Schumer and Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma told CNN the two were in serious discussions about co-sponsoring a bill to strengthen background checks.
The NRA, which is the public face of the powerful gun lobby, opposes many government limits on gun ownership as a violation of the constitutional right to bear arms.
LaPierre insisted Wednesday that the current background check system doesn't work, so expanding it would only create an unmanageable government bureaucracy instead of reducing gun crime in the country.
"The fact is the law right now is a failure, the way it's working," he said. "The fact is that you have 76,000-some people that have been denied under the present law. Only 44 were prosecuted. You're letting them go. They're walking the streets."
Instead, he called for better enforcement of all existing gun laws and creating "an immediate blanket of security around our children" by putting armed guards at all the nation's schools.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney called LaPierre's statistic an intentional diversion "from another issue that is part of this,