Giffords, Newtown families to add personal voice to political gun debate

Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was seriously injured in the mass shooting that killed six people in Tucson, Ariz., two years ago, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, for a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence. She is escorted by her husband, Mark Kelly, right, a retired astronaut, Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., second from left, and the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, left.
AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite

As the push for new gun control laws takes center stage in the Senate with Thursday's introduction of a bill expanding background checks for gun buyers, two people who exemplify the tragic consequences of gun violence are preparing to make very personal, very public case for the need to strengthen America's gun laws.

On Saturday, the White House announced, President Obama's weekly address will be supplanted by remarks from Francine Wheeler, the mother of Ben Wheeler, a six year-old who was slain by a gunman last December during the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

And next week, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot in the head during a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that claimed the lives of six others, including one of Giffords' staffers, will visit Capitol Hill to attend the dedication of a room to her slain staffer and press lawmakers to support stronger gun laws.

Announcing the weekly address swap, White House press secretary Jay Carney explained, "Nobody has a more important or powerful perspective on the issue than the families who have lost loved ones because of the scourge of gun violence," and he credited the families' public advocacy for the "continued progress we've seen in the Senate."

Many relatives of those killed in Newtown have maintained a vigil on Capitol Hill this week, shuttling from office to office to push legislators to support stronger gun control laws. At the beginning of the week, after a visit to Connecticut, President Obama invited many of the families to return to Washington, D.C. with him on Air Force One.

Although Vice President Biden has delivered the president's address before, in May 2011, Wheeler's speech on Saturday will mark the first time during the Obama presidency that someone who is not a member of the administration delivered the weekly address.

And on the heels of that unprecedented display, next Tuesday, former Rep. Giffords will attend the dedication of the Zimmerman room in the U.S. Capitol, named after Gabe Zimmerman, a staffer of Giffords's who was killed during the Tucson shooting.

While on Capitol Hill, a staffer on her political action committee tells CBS News, Giffords will meet with other lawmakers and press them to support a compromise on background checks recently brokered by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would force those buying guns at gun shows or online to undergo a background check just as they would if buying from a licensed dealer.

Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, in the wake of the shootings in Newtown and Tucson, formed Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group dedicated to pressing for reforms to America's gun laws.

The push from Giffords and the Newtown families comes at a pivotal moment for gun legislation on Capitol Hill. On Thursday, after amassing enough votes to clear a procedural roadblock threatened by Republicans, the Senate officially began debating a gun control bill that would expand background checks, enhance school safety, and crack down on illegal gun trafficking. The bill will be amended in the coming days and weeks before eventually coming up for final passage.

If and when it clears the Senate, the legislation will face a tougher audience in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has predicted that the House will act "in some way, shape, or form," on gun laws, but said it would be "irresponsible" to comment on the prospects of the Senate bill in his chamber before final legislative language is inked.