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THE BACKGROUND PUSH

Gabby Giffords returned last week to the Safeway parking lot where a gunman shot her through the head two years ago to urge the U.S. Senate to take action on legislation requiring background checks for all gun sales.

Flanked by her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, Giffords delivered a brief message to Congress: "Be bold. Be courageous. Support background checks."

Giffords and several of the other survivors of the Jan. 8, 2011, massacre gathered on Wednesday, March 6, to encourage Arizonans to ask Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake to support expanding background checks.

As Giffords and Kelly arrived at the Safeway, they laid a bouquet of flowers at the memorial for the six who were killed during the rampage: 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green; federal Judge John M. Roll; Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman; and retirees Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck and Dorwan Stoddard.

Kelly then called on the public to contact McCain and Flake to let them know they should support new laws that would expand background checks to gun sales by unlicensed dealers and make it easier to block sales to mentally ill people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

Kelly pointed out that the Tucson shooter had a history of run-ins with authorities as a result of his deteriorating mental state.

"It was clear that the shooter had a history of mental illness, but he had easy access to a gun," Kelly said. "He purchased his gun with a background check. But if things were different, he would have failed that background check. Not only did he have a history of mental illness, but he had a history of drug use that the U.S. government knew about."

But even if the shooter had been blocked by a background check, Kelly said, "he could have easily gone down the street to a gun show or on the Internet to gain access to a firearm without being subject to a background check."

Emily Nottingham, the mother of slain Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman, said it was difficult to be at the Safeway.

"It's hard to be here today, here where my son was gunned down, here where his body lay on that sidewalk for hours," Nottingham said. "I'm here because I think that right now, we have an opportunity. ... For a very long time, our society has agreed that felons and people who have certain severe mental illnesses should not own guns. ... But that system is riddled with holes—bullet holes—and it needs to be fixed."

Pam Simon, a former aide to Giffords who was among the 13 people wounded in the Tucson rampage, said that in the wake of the shooting, "Everybody said that something has to change. But they said it after Aurora. They said it after Wisconsin. They said it after the Sikh temple. And finally we had the unbelievable carnage of 20 little children in Newtown. ... And so I join with my friends Gabby and Mark in calling on senators to vote yes, to get this first step in this common-sense legislation through our Congress."

Susie Hileman, the neighbor who brought Christina-Taylor Green to the event, said she remembers imagining "the sparks that were going to fly" when Christina-Taylor—an aspiring politician at Mesa Verde Elementary School—shook hands with Giffords.

"A civics lesson was turned into a nightmare," Hileman said. "I lost a playmate. Her parents lost a daughter. We miss her every day."

Hileman expressed frustration with the political excuses for not moving forward with restrictions on guns.

"I have heard it all, and I am tired of it," Hileman said. "If we could save one life, if we could keep one family from feeling the awful, empty ache, if we could do something, and that that something is a common-sense something, and that something is a responsible step ... I think it behooves us all to act. Not just to go home and nod your head and say, 'Wasn't that touching?' But to actually do something."

Ken Dorushka, who was shot while shielding his wife during the Tucson rampage, said the Second Amendment, like the other amendments to the U.S. Constitution, has limits.

"When you talk about rights, I always want to go back and say the right of Christina-Taylor Green to see her 10th birthday supersedes the right of anybody else to have an AK-47."

The press conference, which drew national attention, was another step toward ratcheting up public pressure for new gun laws. Giffords and Kelly have formed Americans for Responsible Solution, a political-action committee that also began running TV ads in key states, including Arizona.

Kelly promised that the public would see more of Gabby Giffords in the future.

"In the last two months, Gabby is back," Kelly said, setting off cheers and applause among those who had gathered to watch the press conference. "Gabby is back and she is committed to doing whatever it takes to make sure that this Congress and this president pass and sign meaningful gun-violence legislation and, specifically, right now, make sure that we get a universal background check bill that, I remind you again, 92 percent of all Americans support."

BACKGROUND BILL PASSES JUDICIARY COMMITTEE

While 92 percent of Americans may support universal background checks, the percentage is considerably lower in Congress—and may indeed fall beneath the key number of 50 percent.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill on a 10-8 vote on Tuesday, March 12. The legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, would require background checks on virtually all gun sales, with some exceptions made for passing along guns to family members or temporarily lending them for hunting or sport purposes.

No Republican on the committee supported the bill.

The question of how background checks can be extended to sales by people who don't have federal firearms licenses is admittedly a somewhat tricky one, given that only federally licensed dealers have access to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NCIS. (See "Background Noise," Jan. 31). Reasonable minds can disagree over whether a father should have to run a background check on his kid before passing along a gun that's been in the family for years.

Both of Arizona's senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, have said in recent weeks that they supported some form of legislation that would expand the use of background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.

Flake voted against the background check bill that passed the Judiciary Committee this week, but he has said he supports finding ways to include more mental-health records in the national background-check database.

"I applaud Gabby and Mark for their efforts to strengthen background checks for gun purchases, particularly as it relates to including mental health records in the NICS," Flake said after last week's press conference with Gabby Giffords, Mark Kelly and other survivors of the Tucson shooting rampage. "Along with three of my colleagues, I introduced legislation to improve mental health background reporting. We can make a difference here, in large part due to what Gabby and Mark are doing."

In other background check news, the right-wing blogosphere lit up over the weekend after news reports that Kelly had purchased an AR-15 rifle at a Tucson gun store.

Kelly said on his Facebook page that he bought the used AR-15 after noticing it on display at the store and noted: "Even to buy an assault weapon, the background check only takes a matter of minutes. ... Scary to think of people buying guns like these without a background check at a gun show or the Internet. We really need to close the gun show and private seller loop hole."

Kelly said he planned to turn the rifle over to the Tucson Police Department.

More by Jim Nintzel

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