WASHINGTON – Mark Kelly woke up in the middle of the night in his hotel room in China and looked at his BlackBerry: Twenty children in Newtown, Conn., all shot to death. He immediately called his wife thousands of miles away, Gabrielle Giffords.

“I said to her, ‘Gabby, we can’t just put out a statement anymore,’ ” Kelly recounted in an interview Tuesday. “Twenty first-graders and their teachers, murdered in a classroom. If we just talk about it, things won’t change. We need to try and help.”

With that, a couple who survived their own episode of gun violence decided to make themselves the new faces of the push to toughen the country’s gun laws. The astronaut and his wife — who as a Democratic congresswoman representing Arizona was shot in the head in 2011 outside a Tucson, Ariz. supermarket — announced on Tuesday, the second anniversary of the shooting, that they were forming their own political group to take on the powerful National Rifle Association.

Kelly said he and Giffords, both gun owners and Westerners supportive of the Second Amendment, would push for ambitious legislative changes in American’s gun laws: an assault weapons ban, universal background checks to close the “gun show loophole,” and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines like the one used to kill six people and wound Giffords and 13 others in Tucson.

“These are common-sense solutions,” Kelly said. “If you can just prevent one of these incidents from happening, isn’t it worth it?”

Their efforts come as the Obama administration is preparing what could be a far-reaching agenda on gun control. Many Democratic lawmakers have also introduced legislation in the new Congress, including measures to ban the sale and manufacture of assault weapons.

The proposals will run into tough political opposition on Capitol Hill, where the NRA remains one of the most powerful lobbying organizations and uses its well-financed political muscle to pressure lawmakers and erect barriers to tougher gun laws. But Kelly said the couple have a unique message and one that is supported by many gun owners.

Giffords, 42, supported gun rights in Congress, and Kelly, 48, is a combat veteran of the Persian Gulf War and a hunter.

“I’ve taken a gun to work,” Kelly said. “I flew in combat in Operation Desert Storm off the USS Midway, carrying a 9-millimeter. I certainly understand the importance and the right to own a firearm in our country. I certainly get that. Gabby and I want to protect people’s Second Amendment rights.”

“But I personally believe, and so does Gabby, that assault weapons used to kill a lot of people all at once should only be used by the military,” he said.

The couple’s new group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, will be based in Washington and will raise money and work toward specific solutions to gun violence.

Giffords and Kelly met last week with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a political independent who is a leading gun-control advocate and is spending millions of dollars of his vast personal fortune on advocacy efforts, and penned an op-ed Tuesday in USA Today announcing their goals.

Kelly also said he will personally reach out to NRA officials, who are due to meet Thursday with Vice President Joe Biden.

“I have talked to NRA members, from both sides of the aisle, and every one of them, including people who are on the border here in southern Arizona, are in 100 percent agreement with some measure of common-sense reform,” Kelly said.

Last week, the couple traveled to Newtown and met with the families of some of the victims.

“Enough,” Giffords said in an interview with ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, saying that the Newtown shooting spurred the couple to action.

In Newtown, Kelly said he and Giffords met with about 40 parents in the home of a fourth-grade boy who could have been shot if assailant Adam Lanza had headed in a different direction after he burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14.

“It was very hard,” Kelly told The Washington Post. “Incredibly difficult. As soon as I walked into the living room and met with the first parents, one showed me a picture on an iPhone of a curly-haired redhead with a big smile who is not here anymore.”