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Lawmakers clash on gun rights as victims' families gather


With slain Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton's family looking on, Democrats and Republicans clashed Tuesday over the best ways to reduce gun violence while protecting citizens' Second Amendment rights.

In a packed hearing room, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee, asked victims of gun violence to stand.

"Look about this room," Durbin said, as several dozen people stood up. "The debate we have before us has affected so many lives."

Standing in the second row were Pendleton's mother and father. The high school student was gunned down just weeks after she performed with classmates at President Barack Obama's inauguration. Her mother will watch the State of the Union with first lady Michelle Obama.

The hearing -- and the dozens of gun violence victims who have come to Capitol Hill to watch Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday evening -- are part of an ongoing effort to tighten the nation's gun laws after 20 elementary school children were killed in Newtown, Conn., in December. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have made new laws a priority, but the package faces an uphill battle in Congress. Republicans have largely been silent on the issue, or have otherwise rejected the proposals.

"Constitutional rights are designed to be protected not just when they're popular but especially when passions are seeking to restrict and limit those rights," said Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who has emerged as a vocal critic of new gun laws.

Democrats have sought to maintain public pressure for new gun laws in the wake of Newtown. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., chastised a Wisconsin National Rifle Association lobbyist who told a local gathering that the NRA's agenda would be "delayed as the 'Connecticut effect' has to go through the process."

Blumenthal also published an opinion piece Tuesday calling the comments "callous and offensive."

During the hearing, Republicans sought to cast doubt on the effectiveness of gun control laws and questioned whether the government was prosecuting gun criminals using laws already on the books. Cruz and others also sought to cast doubts on the background check system; the NRA has opposed expanding background checks by requiring every gun buyer to have one.

That requirement is expected to be a centerpiece of any gun legislation. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy plans to start writing that bill later this month.

There is one area with more obvious agreement: gun trafficking. Under current law, trafficking in guns is often defined as little more than a paperwork violation, making it difficult for law enforcement to effectively prosecute people who buy guns and sell them to criminals.

At the hearing, Cruz expressed support for making trafficking a federal crime.

"I think all of us agree that if there are those that with criminal intent or transferring firearms to felons that there should be strict punishment for that. So that may be a productive area of cooperation," Cruz said.