WASHINGTON -- In chilling detail, Bryan Rigsby, a soft-spoken computer programmer from New- nan, Ga., told lawmakers yesterday how he owed his life to a semiautomatic rifle with a 30-round ammunition clip.
The hearing began a review -- and possible rollback -- of gun-control laws by the Republican majority in Congress.
Republicans have made repeal of the ban on assault-style firearms, which was part of last year's $30 billion anti-crime law, a top priority. Democrats have pledged to fight that move, and President Clinton has indicated he would veto any such repeal.
Mr. Rigsby and a friend were camping in the Oconee National Forest in 1990 when they were attacked by two would-be robbers firing shotguns. With his companion downed by the intruders' initial blast, "my next memory is of the front sight of my Mini-14 on the assailant's chest," Mr. Rigsby told the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime. "All I could think of was to fire enough to scare them off, to stop the attack."
"To me, the most important reason to own a semiautomatic rifle is self-defense," said Mr. Rigsby, recalling how his burst of bullets left one gunman dead and the other wounded. His friend survived.
Mr. Rigsby was among an incongruous group of gun enthusiasts -- merchants, a grandmother, a disabled Korean War veteran -- who testified about how they used firearms to defend themselves, their families and their property.
The witnesses provided "a side of the firearms story that has been drowned out by well-advertised and well-orchestrated sensationalism -- the fundamental right of self-defense," said Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, subcommittee member and chairman of a House task force examining federal gun laws.
However, Democrats charged that the hearing was a "smoke screen" orchestrated by the National Rifle Association to open an assault on the federal ban on assault weapons.
Several other witnesses testified yesterday that they were still alive because they owned assault weapons and large ammunition magazines that they obtained before the federal ban took effect.
With her husband away and her children asleep, Sharon-Jo Ramboz heard someone break into their home in Walkersville, Md. "I grabbed my Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle," she said, and the "distinctive sound" when she chambered a round was enough to send the intruders scurrying.
Todd Bridges said he used an AR-15 to wound a burglar who broke into his muffler shop in Wichita, Kan. Phil Murphy said he used the same type of semiautomatic rifle to hold at bay a career criminal who had broken into his parents' house in Tucson, Ariz.
"Honest citizens should not be denied the right to choose the firearm that best suits their needs," said Gary Baker, who armed his employees and helped them kill two robbers in a gunfight at his jewelry store in Richmond, Va.
However, other witnesses told how owning guns had brought tragedy to their families.
Susan White-Bowden of Finksburg, Md., said her former husband committed suicide with a pistol that he kept at a bedside drawer in 1974. Three years later, her despondent 17-year-old son killed himself with another gun in their home.
"I have six grandchildren now and there are no guns in my house," she said. "I would die at a robber's hand six times over before putting a gun near any of those children."
The House could vote as early as May on legislation to lift the federal ban on 19 specific firearms classified as assault weapons. And Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, reportedly told an NRA official in a recent letter that he hoped to have such a bill on Mr. Clinton's desk by summer.