Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who suffered a grievous brain injury in a mass shooting in her Tucson constituency two years ago, made a surprise appearance at the first hearing on gun violence on Capitol Hill since last month's Newtown shooting.
Accompanied by Mark Kelly, her husband and a Nasa astronaut, Ms Giffords held a packed Senate Judiciary Committee room in her thrall as she struggled to get her words out. "Speaking is difficult. But I need to say something important," she told the senators. "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."
The high drama introduced by Ms Giffords hardly dissipated as witnesses and senators from both sides of the gun control issue tried to score points. As the prejudices spilled out it became harder to imagine that the gulf between them – gun control advocates on one side and defenders of the second amendment right to own guns on the other – will ever be bridged.
Much of the tangling in the proceedings involved Wayne LaPierre, the head of the powerful National Rifle Association, who set out his opposition to changes in the law including to proposals outlined earlier this month by President Barack Obama as a response to the Newtown massacre which left 20 children dead.
"Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of deranged criminals," said Mr LaPierre, pictured right, who argues the best response to Newtown would be to put armed security guards in all schools. "Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families."
Mr Obama has asked Congress to ban the sale of most assault weapons, including the AR-15 rife used in Newtown, as well as of high capacity bullet clips. He is also asking lawmakers to close gaping loopholes in the background checks that are meant to occur before a gun sale. Guns bought from private citizens, for instance at gun shows, account for about 40 per cent of all sales in America. Such purchases are not subject to background checks.
Questions from Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham of North Carolina, meanwhile served as a reminder that the Obama proposals will face strong headwinds not just in the Democrat-controlled Senate but also in the House of Representatives where the Republicans are in the majority. By most reckonings, only the plans for a closing of the background check loopholes stand any real chance of becoming law.
Senator Graham signalled, for example, his opposition to an end to the sale of high-capacity magazines because it might impede the ability of citizens to defend themselves. In the kind of statement that would leave most gun-control activists gaping he asserted: "There can be a situation where a mother runs out of bullets because of what we do here". In the same intervention, he suggested: "In some circumstances the AR-15 makes perfect sense." Charles Schumer, the Democrat Senator from New York and a powerful voice for tougher controls, portrayed some of his despair at the approach taken by the other side, notably when espousing the notion that guns are not to blame in mass shootings, the owners of the guns are. "Not including guns when discussing mass killings is like not discussing cigarettes when discussing lung cancer," he said.
Mr Kelly, who with his wife recently founded a new group dedicated to curbing gun violence called Americans for Responsible Solutions, sought to offer a moderate voice in an otherwise often immoderate debate. "Gabby and I are pro-gun ownership," he said. "We are also anti-gun violence. And we believe that in this debate, Congress should look not towards special interests and ideology – which push us apart – but towards compromise, which brings us together."
Echoing the dignity of his wife's brief appearance, he shook hands with Mr LaPierre as he walked out. Later, in his home state, three people would be injured in a shooting in Phoenix.
Wayne Lapierre: In his own words
"Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals. Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families.
Proposals that would only serve to burden the law-abiding have failed in the past and they'll fail again. What people... fear today is that they are going to be abandoned by their country. If a tornado hits, if a hurricane hits, if a riot occurs, that they are going to be out there alone and the only way they are going protect themselves in the cold, in the dark, is with a firearm. I think that indicates how... essential the Second Amendment is to fundamental human survival."