WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congress takes up gun control measures for the first time Wednesday since the shooting of 20 young students in Connecticut in December pushed the long-sensitive issue to the top of President Barack Obama's agenda for his second term.
The nation's most powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, was set to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose own divided members reflect the wider debate that gun limits will face on a path through Congress that promises to be difficult.
The hearing comes after Obama this month proposed a package that includes banning military-style assault weapons, requiring background checks on all firearms purchases and limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds. The U.S. has the world's highest rate of gun ownership, and gun sales have jumped since the Connecticut shooting, as those who insist on an absolute reading of the constitutional right to bear arms fear that the government somehow will take all their guns away.
Among those testifying Wednesday will be surprise witness Gabrielle Giffords, a former congresswoman who was shot in the head while meeting with constituents outside an Arizona supermarket in 2011. Six people were killed, and 12 were wounded. A Senate aide said Giffords is not expected to answer questions. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because Giffords' appearance had not been announced.
Giffords, a gun owner, and her husband, Mark Kelly,have formed a political action committee called Americans for Responsible Solutions to back lawmakers who support tighter gun restrictions and counter the influence of the NRA, which is known to punish lawmakers who stray from its point of view.
The NRA also has led past efforts to block stricter gun regulations, and it has promised to do it now.
In testimony prepared for Wednesday's hearing but released Tuesday, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said gun control measures had failed in the past. He instead expressed support for better enforcement of existing laws, stronger school security and better government's ability to keep guns from mentally unstable people.
LaPierre's statement had a milder tone than recent NRA remarks, including a television ad that called Obama an "elitist hypocrite" for voicing doubts about the NRA proposal of armed guards in every school in the country while his own children are protected that way at their school. While Obama's children have Secret Service protection, officials at their school have said its own guards don't carry guns
Even if gun control proposals make their way through a Congress that is already busy with immense fiscal issues and immigration, some law enforcement authorities at the local level have already threatened not to enforce them in sympathy for gun owners.
The chairman of the panel, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, said little Tuesday about the direction his committee's legislation might take. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated that whatever the committee produced wouldn't necessarily be the final product, saying the package would be debated by the full Senate and senators would be allowed to propose "whatever amendments they want that deal with this issue."
It remains unclear whether those advocating limits on gun availability will be able to overcome resistance by the NRA and lawmakers from states where gun ownership abounds. Question marks include not just many Republicans but also Democratic senators facing re-election in Republican-leaning states in 2014.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Judiciary Committee member, has already introduced her own legislation banning assault weapons and magazines of more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
"The time has come to change course," said Feinstein, one of Congress' leading gun control advocates. "And the time has come to make people safe."
Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said he would listen to proposals and agreed that reviewing the issue was timely.
"But I'm a strong supporter of the Second Amendment," he said Tuesday, citing the constitutional provision that guarantees the right to bear arms, "and I don't intend to change."
Knowing that television cameras would beam images of the hearing nationally, both sides were urging supporters to attend Wednesday's session.
A page on an NRA-related website urged backers to arrive two hours early to get seats, bring no signs and dress appropriately. The liberal BoldProgressives.org urged its members to attend, saying the NRA "will try to pack the room with their supporters to deceive Congress into believing they are mainstream."
The Connecticut shooting has also set off a national discussion about mental health care, with everyone from law enforcement leaders to the gun industry urging policymakers to focus on the issue as a way to help prevent similar attacks. The issue of mental health also has come up in last year's mass shooting at a Colorado theater last year and at Virginia Tech in 2007, which remains the deadliest school shooting in the country's history.
"Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals," LaPierre said in his statement for his testimony Wednesday. "Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families."
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed.