OLYMPIA — Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords headlined a crowded and emotional hearing on gun-sale background checks here Tuesday, giving Washington state a preview of a looming debate.
In brief remarks aimed both at lawmakers and the voters who will almost certainly get the final say, Giffords symbolically cast her story of surviving a shooting rampage as an argument for requiring the checks for all gun sales.
“Be bold, be courageous,” she urged. “The nation is counting on you.”
Giffords, a Democrat who was shot in the head during a rampage that killed six and injured a dozen others, subsequently retired from Congress and founded her own national gun-violence-prevention group.
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She and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, spoke Tuesday at a state House Judiciary Committee hearing on Initiative 594, which would mandate the universal background checks, and Initiative 591, which would keep the current system requiring the checks only for sales from licensed firearm dealers.
The proposals — initiatives to the Legislature — are getting hearings in the House and Senate this week even though they are expected to end up on the November ballot. Lawmakers can pass such initiatives into law but usually punt them to voters.
State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, who chairs the Judiciary panel, said she does not even plan to bring up the measures for committee votes.
“I don’t see the purpose of doing that,” said Jinkins, D-Tacoma, adding she held the hearing out of respect for the hundreds of thousands of residents who signed petitions to qualify the initiatives for consideration.
Judging by Tuesday’s turnout, residents appreciated the courtesy.
Hundreds poured onto the Capitol campus for the afternoon hearing, filling 46 sign-in sheets for public testimony, according to committee staff. Only a fraction actually got to testify, with the rest relegated to the hallway or the state House chambers, where video of the hearing was projected onto a large screen.
Those who did testify were evenly divided between supporters and opponents of universal background checks.
Giffords and Kelly went first, arguing expanded checks would save lives by helping prevent criminals and dangerously mentally ill residents from getting guns — “all without infringing on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” Kelly said.
Kelly, who had previously testified in support of similar laws in Colorado, Nevada and Delaware, played up his Washington state connections: He noted he used to live on Whidbey Island and mentioned Seattle’s May 2012 Café Racer shootings before discussing several more recent tragedies.
“Since celebrating the new year, America has seen a school shooting every other day,” Kelly said.
Other victims also pleaded for passage of Initiative 594.
Gun-rights advocates countered the measure would not prevent shootings.
“ ‘Five ninety four’ is not about universal background checks, because criminals will ignore the law and continue to obtain firearms where most criminals obtain firearms now” — illegal sources,” said Brian Judy, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.
Instead, Judy referred to the proposal as an “excessive regulatory scheme” to register gun owners that would serve only to burden law-abiding gun owners.
Phil Shave, executive director of the Washington Arms Collectors, which hosts gun shows, said the measure “would affect millions of our citizens and, in my opinion, accomplish nothing.”
But others, like Joe Deaser, said that even saving one life would make Initiative 594 worthwhile.
Deaser, who owns a gun club in California, which has universal background checks, said they are “a very important part of the puzzle” of preventing violence.
The heated debate took place as other activists milled in the hallway.
Supporters of Initiative 594 wore blue and red stickers that said “YES ON 594: Save Lives. Reduce Crime.”
Second Amendment activists, some of whom took advantage of their right in Washington state to carry firearms openly, wore white stickers with a red line through the words “Gun Control.”
Devyn Hembry, a 24-year-old former DJ from Shelton, carried a semi-automatic rifle and distributed photographs of Giffords carrying a rifle, meant to portray the former congresswoman as a hypocrite.
In general, Kelly said in an interview, he and his wife were pleased with the atmosphere.
“It’s great to see that people are enthusiastic about this from both sides of the issue,” he said.
Kelly said he doesn’t know how involved the couple will be in Washington’s initiative fight.
“We’re looking at a lot of options,” he said.
Staff reporter Ashley Stewart contributed to this report.
Brian M. Rosenthal:
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On Twitter @brianmrosenthal