The Senate formally took up President Obama’s proposals to reform the nation’s gun control laws with a high-profile Senate Judiciary hearing on Wednesday. In a surprise, unannounced appearance, Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congressmember badly wounded in the Tuscon shooting rampage of two years ago, urged lawmakers to back gun control.
Gabrielle Giffords: "This is an important conversation for our children, for our communities, for Democrats and Republicans. Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important. Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you. Thank you."
Appearing alongside Giffords was her husband, the former astronaut Mark Kelly. Kelly said he and Giffords represent the millions of U.S. gun owners who support new restrictions in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre.
Mark Kelly: "We’re both gun owners, and we take that right and the responsibilities that come with it very seriously. And we watch with horror when the news breaks to yet another tragic shooting. After 20 kids and six of their teachers were gunned down in their classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary, we said this time must be different. Something needs to be done. We are simply two reasonable Americans who have said, 'Enough.'"
Also testifying at the Senate hearing on gun control on Wednesday was National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre, who has vocally opposed any gun control measures, including the assault weapons ban. LaPierre sparred with Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois over whether tighter background checks could help deter gun violence.
Wayne LaPierre: "My point is, even if you turn up someone on an instant check, it’s a mentally ill person or a felon, as long as you let them go, you’re not keeping them from getting a gun, and you’re not preventing them from getting to their next crime scene."
Sen. Dick Durbin: "Mr. LaPierre, that’s the point. The criminals won’t go to purchase the guns because there will be a background check. We’ll stop them from the original purchase. You miss that point completely, and I think it’s basic."
As the hearing on gun control took place, yet another mass shooting was unfolding, this time in Arizona. One person was killed and another two people were wounded when a gunman opened fire at an office building in Phoenix. The suspect, Arthur Harmon, fled the scene and remains at large. Harmon was reportedly in a legal dispute with the dead victim. The victim’s lawyer was left critically wounded.
In Chicago, a 15-year-old girl who performed at President Obama’s inauguration last week has been killed in a random shooting. Hadiya Pendleton was with a group of friends when an unknown gunman fired from nearby. Pendleton had recently returned from Washington, where she had performed with her school marching band during the inaugural festivities.
The push for reforming gun control comes as President Obama is also seeking an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. In an interview with the Spanish-language network Univision, Obama said he is confident that both efforts can be achieved.
President Obama: "I’m actually optimistic that we can get both done. Both will end up generating some opposition, and some strong opposition. There will be passions on both sides. But I’m generally encouraged that the Senate seems to be having a serious conversation about these issues."
Israel has carried out a bombing inside of Syria, killing two people. The Syrian government says Israeli fighter jets entered Syrian airspace at dawn on Wednesday and launched strikes. The U.S. government has alleged Israel was hitting a convoy carrying weapons for Hezbollah in Lebanon, but Syria says the target was in fact a military research site near Damascus. It was the first known Israeli attack inside Syrian territory since 2007, when Israeli warplanes bombed a military site in eastern Syria.
The Israeli attack inside Syria comes amidst unrelenting violence in the fight between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebels seeking his ouster. But in a sign of a potential diplomatic opening, the head of Syria’s main opposition group, Mouaz al-Khatib, said Wednesday he is prepared to hold talks with Assad’s representatives outside of Syria if the government releases tens of thousands of prisoners. Al-Khatib’s offer marked an apparent softening of a previously held position ruling out any talks with Assad. Speaking during a visit to Kuwait, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged both sides to stop the fighting in Syria.
Ban Ki-moon: "I urge again to members of the Security Council to feel the sense of responsibility to humanity and history. We cannot go on like this way. But what is a more important fact is that primary responsibility rests with the Syrian government, the President Assad. He should listen to the voices and cries of so many people."
A court in the Netherlands has ruled the oil giant Shell is at least partly responsible for environmental damage from oil leaks in the Niger Delta. On Wednesday, a Dutch court ruled Shell must pay compensation to a Nigerian farmer whose land was contaminated by oil pollution from Shell’s operations. The ruling was mixed, however, as the court also threw out four other complaints. Despite the dismissals, Nigerian human rights lawyer and activist Ebun Adegboruwa said the ruling establishes a precedent to hold Shell accountable.
Ebun Adegboruwa: "I am glad that for the first time at least the agitation of our people has been confirmed that Shell is not a friendly organization and that it needed to be held accountable by its own people for the crimes committed against people of Nigeria, so it’s quite commendable."
At least two people have died in a burst of extreme weather spanning four states. Tornadoes were reported in Mississippi, Georgia, Indiana and Tennessee on Wednesday, a freak occurrence for the month of January. The storms erupted after a cold front from the Arctic region clashed with warm air from the Gulf of Mexico.
Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry bid farewell to the Senate on Wednesday following his confirmation as the next secretary of state. Kerry will formally take over for Hillary Clinton on Friday. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has tapped William Cowan as Kerry’s temporary replacement until a special election is held in June. With Cowan’s appointment, the Senate will have two African-American members for the first time ever.