Predictably, one of the biggest points of contention in Wednesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence was whether to implement universal background checks. The NRA's Wayne LaPierre opposes them because, as he put it, "background checks will never be universal because criminals will never submit to them." But Democrats argued that that is exactly the point: Mandating background checks will dissuade criminals from going to buy guns in the first place.
"My problem with background checks is you are never going to get criminals to go through universal background checks. And all the law-abiding people, you'll create an enormous federal bureaucracy, unfunded, hitting all the little people in the country, will have to go through it, pay the fees, pay the taxes," LaPierre said. "We don't even prosecute anybody right now that goes through the system we have."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., fired back (to some applause from the room): "Mr. LaPierre, that's the point. The criminals won't go to purchase the guns because there'll be a background check. We'll stop them from the original purchase. You missed that point completely. And I think it's basic."
In another exchange, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., reiterated this point, saying that LaPierre is right, "criminals won't subject themselves to a background check, and my response is: That's exactly the point."
"I think to the extent that we can expand the background check, the very fact that criminals won't subject themselves to a background check" will prevent them from getting guns, Whitehouse said.
Mark Kelly, Gabrielle Giffords' husband, also directly addressed LaPierre's argument, pointing out that Jared Loughner, who shot Giffords in Tucson in January 2011, was a mentally ill drug user who was rejected from the Army. "But because of these gaps in the mental health system," there was no record on Loughner. If there had been, Kelly said, "he would have failed that background check. He would have likely gone to a gun show, or a private seller, and avoided that background check. But if we close that gun show loophole, if we require private sellers to complete a background check, and we get those 121,000 records and others into the systems, we will prevent gun crime. That is an absolute truth."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the committee, tried to zero in on whether LaPierre and the NRA support mandatory background checks at gun shows, "as you did in 1999."
LaPierre would not give a straight answer, saying that the NRA supported background checks on gun dealers, which is already the law. "That's not my question, Mr. LaPierre. I'm not trying to play games here," Leahy shot back.
"We do not, because the fact is the law right now is a failure, the way it's working," LaPierre said.
"With all due respect, that was not the question I asked, nor did you answer it," Leahy replied.
Another contentious part of the hearing was based on testimony from Gayle Trotter, an attorney and senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, who emphasized that allowing assault weapons helps protect women from armed intruders. Trotter said that "guns are the great equalizer for women," and "in a violent confrontation, guns reverse the balance of power." She also noted that "young women are speaking out as to why AR-15 weapons are the weapons of choice" and that we must "defend our Second Amendment right to choose to defend ourselves."
Trotter also referenced the story of a woman who used a 12-gauge shotgun to defend her family from intruders, noting that gun laws could have prevented the woman from defending herself.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., agreed. "There can be a situation where a mother runs out of bullets because of what we do here," he said, arguing that "15 rounds in the hands of a mother trying to protect her children may not be enough."
Whitehouse, on the other hand, pointed out that the proposed legislation to ban assault weapons would not have stopped the woman in Trotter's anecdote from using the gun that she did. "She would clearly have an adequate ability to protect her family without the need for a 100-round piece," Whitehouse said.
Trotter took extreme issue with this: "How can you say that? You are a large man. You are -- tall. You are not a young mother. Who has a young child with her."
Meanwhile, David Kopel, a constitutional law professor at Denver University, argued that, in fact, banning magazines larger than 10 rounds is "plainly unconstitutional" because they are "commonly used by law-abiding citizens for legitimate purposes."