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At gun violence hearing, Minn. senators talk background checks and mental health

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Klobuchar, Giffords, Franken
Shooting victim and former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) (C) speaks with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee (L-R) Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) before a hearing about gun control on Capitol Hill Jan. 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. Giffords delivered an opening statement to the committee, which met for the first time since the mass shooting at a Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Congress held its first hearings on gun violence Wednesday following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last month. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which includes Minnesota Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, heard from advocates and critics of stronger gun control laws. 

The hearings kicked off with an emotional appeal by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who narrowly survived a shooting rampage in 2011.

It wasn't until more than two and a half hours later that Klobuchar got a chance to ask questions.

Klobuchar and Franken both went out of their way to say they did not intend to take away weapons from hunters or lawful gun owners.

"I come from a hunting state, the last thing I want to do is hurt my Uncle Dick and his deer stand," said Klobuchar.

UNIVERSAL BACKGROUND CHECKS

The committee's Republican members tended to focus on the lack of prosecutions under existing gun laws and said self defense justified the need for powerful weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.

Democrats, including Klobuchar, tended to emphasize the shortcomings in the existing background check system for gun purchases. For example, guns sold in private transactions are generally exempt from background checks. 

Klobuchar highlighted the issue when asking Baltimore County Police Chief James Johnson, who's also the chair of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, about the percentage of gun purchases made at gun shows.

"Statistics reveal that about 40 percent of gun sales take place at gun shows and other non-licensed dealer sales arrangements," Johnson said.

But the fact-checking group Politifact argues that figure is half true, noting that it's based on a  study that dates back to 1997. 

Still, the idea of universal background checks faced fierce resistance from the National Rifle Association's top lobbyist, Wayne LaPierre. In response to a question from Klobuchar he dismissed the idea outright.

"It's an unworkable, universal federal nightmare bureaucracy being imposed under the federal government," LaPierre said.

Among the hundreds of people in the audience for the committee hearing was Miya Rahamim. Her father and four others were killed last September by a recently dismissed employee who opened fire at the Minneapolis company Accent Signage Systems.

Since the shooting, Rahamim has gotten involved in the gun control movement. She's a lawyer in Washington and thought the arguments against expanding background checks fell flat.

"There really wasn't an opposing argument to that that was substantial. They just tried to claim background checks don't work," Rahamim said.

MENTAL HEALTH

When it came time for Franken to speak, he took the opportunity to talk about legislation he's about to introduce that would expand mental health access in schools — something he said might be able to detect and prevent future school shootings.

He also said the characterization of the mentally ill in the hearing as trigger happy and prone to violence wasn't necessarily accurate either.

"The vast majority of people with mental illness are no more violent that the rest of the population," Franken said. "In fact, they're more likely to be the victims of violence."

ASSAULT WEAPONS BAN

Both Franken and Klobuchar have signed onto legislation that would restore a 1990s-era ban on assault-style weapons. LaPierre and other witnesses argued the ban was unworkable and nonsensical.

Franken asked why specific features such as a collapsible stock and a pistol grip mattered in defining what counts as an assault weapon. Police chief James Johnson responded.

"It's meant for the battlefield and a public safety environment only," Johnson said.

Things ended on a somber note as Giffords' husband Mark Kelly informed the hearing room that there had been yet another mass shooting while the hearing was under way, this time in Arizona. Five people were injured.

OBAMA WILL VISIT MINNEAPOLIS TO ADDRESS GUN VIOLENCE

President Barack Obama plans to speak in Minneapolis on Monday to promote his plan to reduce gun violence.

The White House says Obama will meet with local leaders and law enforcement. The trip comes as Congress begins considering proposals to prevent future gun massacres.

A spokeswoman says Minneapolis has taken important steps to reduce gun violence. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak has long supported the president. 

Most of the Democrats from the state's congressional delegation strongly back his administration's proposals for tightening background checks, banning some assault-style weapons and limiting high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Obama last visited Minneapolis in June to raise money for his reelection campaign.