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WASHINGTON/PHOENIX (Reuters) - A new gun control group led by Gabrielle Giffords, the former U.S. congresswoman wounded in a Tucson shooting rampage, wants to raise $20 million for the 2014 congressional elections, matching the National Rifle Association's spending in last November's elections, the group's treasurer said on Wednesday.
Giffords and her husband, former U.S. astronaut Mark Kelly, have turned to Houston trial lawyer and Democratic donor Steve Mostyn to act as treasurer. He gave $1 million of his own money to help kick start a campaign launched on Tuesday calling for what Giffords and Kelly describe as common-sense measures to curb gun violence.
The move marks the entry of the high-profile couple, both gun owners, into a heated national debate over gun control fueled by the massacre of 20 children and six teachers at a Connecticut elementary school last month.
"We're just getting things started, but I've had conversations with a dozen other large political donors who have worked with me on other issues in the past, and I've had a good response," Mostyn told Reuters.
Even if the group manages to meet its funding targets, it and other similar groups face a steep battle to change U.S. gun laws. The U.S. House of Representatives has a pro-gun rights majority and it's too early to know if the outcry after the Connecticut shooting will lead to a shift in how they vote.
Vice President Joe Biden said on Wednesday the White House is determined to act quickly to curb gun violence and will explore all avenues - including executive orders that would not require approval by Congress.
Once a favorite cause of wealthy liberals from Hollywood to Manhattan, gun control has fallen out of favor in recent years, and Congress has not approved any major restrictions on gun ownership in nearly two decades.
But the tide might be turning. Billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $3.3 million to help unseat a pro-gun Democratic U.S. representative from California, Joe Baca, even before the Connecticut massacre.
Giffords' effort, Americans for Responsible Solutions, seeks to build on that momentum.
"We are going to provide support and backing for candidates in U.S. Congress and U.S. Senate races that are attacked by the NRA for taking moderate positions on common-sense gun safety issues," Mostyn said. "We will also field candidates."
The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Giffords' plans.
Other gun control groups, like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, report increased support since the Newtown shooting but have not usually put money into elections.
The largest U.S. lobby group for gun rights, the NRA spent $20 million in the 2012 election cycle, including on candidate contributions and its own advertising, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign data.
The NRA says it has 4 million members and its officials frequently frame gun control as an effort driven by elites, including wealthy individuals who live on the two U.S. coasts - a stereotype that a new super PAC might play into.
"The NRA does best in times of normal politics when most people are not paying much attention. But this could be a game-changing moment because of the sustained national attention being given to this issue," said Robert Spitzer, a political science professor and gun policy expert at the State University of New York College at Cortland.
If Giffords succeeds in raising $20 million, it would dwarf the amount raised by gun control groups for the 2012 elections, said Kristin Goss, an associate professor of public policy at Duke University.
Arizona state Representative John Kavanagh, a Republican who backed a state law allowing non-felons to carry concealed guns without a permit, said the group's fundraising target seemed high but noted it was an emotive issue that would draw donors.
"I think they'll raise a lot of money. But if they're trying to buck the Second Amendment, all the money in the world won't accomplish that," he said.
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right of people to keep and bear arms.
Giffords' involvement adds a new face to gun control efforts. She was shot in the head and nearly killed by a gunman in 2011 while meeting constituents outside an Arizona supermarket. She later left Congress to focus on her recovery.
"Gabby's experience puts her in a very unique position," former Giffords aide C.J. Karamargin said. "Her congressional career was built on the very premise of working with people who represented different points of view, and finding a way to bring them together to solve a problem."
Mostyn, the treasurer, said he became involved in Giffords' effort after receiving a phone call from her husband in the days after the Newtown school massacre.
"Mark called me and said, 'I think it's time we do something,'" Mostyn said. "I said, 'We've stood by long enough.' Having a 5-year-old little girl and looking at those pictures, I will tell you was a rather sobering moment for me."
Mostyn said he and his wife donated $1 million to the "Super PAC," a vehicle that allows donors to spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose political candidates. Giffords' drive received $400,000 in smaller donations on its first day, he said.
The group hopes to raise "enough money to compete on an even-keel basis with the NRA on the cycle, which would be $16 to $20 million," Mostyn said. It wants the money in time for party primaries next year, he said.
Mostyn declined to identify the donors, whom he said he had worked with previously on Priorities USA, the re-election Super PAC for President Barack Obama, and the House Majority PAC, for the House of the Representatives.
Mostyn, who made a fortune from personal injury lawsuits, said he and his wife have a gun range on their ranch, while Giffords and Kelly own firearms - cultural cues they hope will ward off any fears they want to ban all firearms or take other extreme measures.
Possible laws under debate would expand background checks, which are required only for retail gun sales; ban certain semi-automatic rifles; and restrict high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Writing by David Ingram; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mary Milliken