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Lawmakers touched by gun violence take debate personally

U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) speaks to the media on NRA/assault weapons on Capitol Hill in Wa
U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) speaks to the media on NRA/assault weapons on Capitol Hill in Wa

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - They belong to an exclusive group in the U.S. Congress: survivors of gun violence.

They number at least seven. A few were nearly killed. Others lost family members or colleagues before they came to Washington and became players in the national debate on guns.

Still carrying the emotional and, in some cases, physical scars from those episodes, most of the legislators believe a string of mass killings - notably the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting that killed 26 last month - has put the goal of more stringent gun control laws within tantalizing reach.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California plans to introduce her own gun control measure on Thursday - 35 years after she faced a double homicide at work.

"If we can't get real reforms this time, I don't know what kind of slaughter it will take," said Democratic Representative Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed and son paralyzed 20 years ago in a New York commuter train shooting.

The six Democrats with personal experience of gun violence support many, if not all, the proposals put forward by President Barack Obama, a package that includes upgrades in mental health and improved school security.

Some of the proposals could be implemented by executive order. The most controversial - an assault weapons ban - would renew a 10-year prohibition of these guns that expired in 2004 and would require a vote by Congress.

But even among those in Congress whose lives have been directly touched by gun violence, not all are behind the cause.

Republican Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, whose father, an attorney, was shot and killed in a courtroom decades ago, joined fellow Republicans last week in denouncing Obama's proposals.

"I want our children safe at school and our Second Amendment (gun) rights protected at home," Brady said. "The president's proposals do neither."

"I don't want any family to go through what our family experienced, but I absolutely don't believe that more gun control will prevent that from happening," he said.

With 310 million guns in civilian hands and about 11,000 gun homicides last year, the United States is one of the world's most violent and heavily armed nations.

Representative Bobby Rush of Illinois lost his 19-year-old son, Huey, in 1999 to a man wielding a handgun. He said his personal tragedy changed his priorities in Congress.

"I had long understood the tragedies caused by guns and the need for better gun control. But after my son was killed, I stepped up my efforts. I became more focused," Rush said.

POWER OF THE GUN LOBBY

Rush said he is hopeful that the emotional power of the Newton massacre by a troubled young man with semi-automatic weapons will finally overcome the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association.

"My biggest disappointment has been my fellow Democrats," he said. "We have all these liberals on energy, the environment. Yet they abandon me on gun control because of the NRA."

Feinstein has backed the gun-control cause since she was elected to the Senate in 1992. In 1978 she was president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and discovered the body of Mayor George Moscone after he and a fellow supervisor, Harvey Milk, were shot to death by a former supervisor, Dan White.

In her own successful campaign for San Francisco mayor, Feinstein embraced gun control, then took the cause to Washington.

Her bill would mirror some of Obama's proposals by prohibiting assault weapons and high capacity ammunition devices that carry more than 10 rounds.

Feinstein said these weapons have only "one purpose: to kill the most people in the shortest amount of time possible."

On January 8, 2011, then-congressional aide Ron Barber stood beside his boss, Representative Gabby Giffords, as she met with constituents in Tucson, Arizona.

A gunman opened fire, hitting Giffords and Barber along with 17 others, six fatally. A year later, Giffords resigned from Congress and Barber, her district director, took her seat.

Last week, Barber and 11 fellow members of a House gun violence task force met with Vice President Joe Biden before he made recommendations to Obama.

The next day, Obama included in his package Barber's proposed improvements in mental health.

"We know that untreated or undiagnosed mental illness has been a factor in a number of the recent mass shootings," Barber said. "We can wait no longer."

It's unclear if the Democratic Senate or Republican House will even consider an assault weapons ban largely because of opposition by gun groups.

This has riled many lawmakers, including Representative Jackie Speier of California, who was shot five times on a 1978 trip to Guyana while a congressional aide.

Five others were killed, including Congressman Leo Ryan, who went to investigate if people were being held against their will at a community known as Jonestown that was later the scene of a mass murder-suicide.

"You shouldn't have to be shot to understand what's important," said Speier, elected to Congress in 2008.

"Every member of the House and Senate should have to make a public statement on where they stand," she said.

Democratic Representative Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress, learned the dangers of guns as a 16 year old.

In 1980, Langevin was visiting a police station where a gun held by an officer accidentally discharged, ripping into his spinal cord and confining him to a wheelchair for life.

"I live every day with the damage that guns can do," said Langevin, who has pushed for gun control and firearms safety.

Langevin has urged colleagues to invite gun violence victims as guests for Obama's February 12 State of the Union Address to Congress. "They should be seen and heard," he said.

McCarthy has had many disappointments in her two decades fighting for gun control but vows to make the most of the current opportunity.

"I promised my son I'd do what I can," said McCarthy, elected in 1996. "I've experienced plenty of frustration, but I'm not going to give up."

(Additional reporting by Kim Dixon; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Cynthia Osterman)

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