Republicans and the NRA are not the only hurdles Democrats face in trying to push gun legislation through Congress this year. It is also unclear what several Democratic senators facing re-election in GOP-leaning states in 2014 will do, such as including Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee's chairman, said he hoped his panel would write gun control legislation next month, though he did not specify what it might contain. In his opening remarks, he voiced support for requiring broader background checks that would help keep criminals and the mentally ill from obtaining firearms, and he has also introduced legislation that would make it a federal crime for someone to purchase a gun for a person who would not be legally allowed to have one.
Reflecting the emotion that the gun issue taps into nationwide, Wednesday's three-and-a-half-hour hearing featured numerous clashes between senators and some of the witnesses who testified.
"You are a large man," Gayle Trotter, a senior fellow with the conservative Independent Women's Forum, told Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., as he questioned her about gun curbs he favors. "You are not a young mother who has a young child" she might have to defend, she said.
At other points, Democrats on the panel contested LaPierre's argument that criminals would simply ignore expanded requirements for background checks. Such checks are currently required for gun purchases from licensed dealers, but not some firearms bought in conjunction with gun shows or online.
"That's the point. The criminals will not go to purchase the guns because there'll be a background check. It will stop them from original purchase. You missed that point completely. It is basic," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Under questioning from Leahy, LaPierre said that in a reversal his organization no longer supports universal background checks for gun purchasers as it did years ago.
"Back in '99 you said, 'No loopholes, nowhere,' " said Leahy, referring to testimony delivered more than a decade ago. "Now you do not support background checks for all."
Giffords, a surprise witness, was helped to her chair as the hearing began by committee Leahy and others. She'd been working on her remarks for a week, but decided to deliver them Tuesday evening, said Pia Carusone, her former chief of staff who is now executive director for Americans for Responsible Solutions.
Kelly recounted the January 2011 attack on Giffords and others and described her battle to regain basic skills.
"Gabby's gift for speech is a distant memory," he told the senators. "She struggles to walk, and she is partially blind. Her right arm is completely paralyzed. And a year ago she left a job she loved serving the people of Arizona."
Toward the end of the hearing, Kelly said he had just gotten word of another Arizona shooting that occurred during Wednesday's session. That shooting in a Phoenix office building left three people wounded, and the shooter was being hunted.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and David Espo contributed to this report.