By Jackie Kucinich and Catalina Camia,USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- A visibly distraught father of a 6-year-old killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut urged a Senate panel on Wednesday to pass legislation to prevent another gun massacre.
"It's hard for me to talk about my deceased son," said Neil Heslin, father of Jesse Lewis. "I'm not here for sympathy or a pat on the back. I'm here to speak up for my son."
Heslin broke down repeatedly, sobbing and pausing as he told the story of that fateful day on Dec. 14 when Jesse and 19 of his schoolmates died in Newtown, Conn. Heslin held a framed portrait of himself holding Jesse when he was a baby, as he pleaded with the Senate Judiciary Committee. People in the Senate hearing room dabbed at their eyes, others openly wept as Heslin spoke.
Heslin and Dr. William Begg, an EMS medical director who treated Sandy Hook victims, were featured witnesses at the panel's first hearing on a bill to ban assault weapons. Begg also wept openly, as he dismissed the idea that no action is needed because deaths by assault weapons are relatively small.
"Please don't tell that the people of Tucson, or Aurora, or Columbine, or Virginia Tech and don't tell that to the people of Newtown," he said. "This is a public health issue. Please make the right decision."
The assault weapons legislation by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., faces an uphill battle in Congress, attracting opposition from Democrats and Republicans alike. Feinstein, who wrote the original assault weapons ban in 1994, said, "The need for a federal ban has never been greater."
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking member on the Judiciary panel, said Feinstein's bill is based on "arbitrary distinctions" and have "nothing to do with the functions of the weapons."
"Those arbitrary distinctions and the fact that these weapons are commonly used for self-defense raise constitutional questions under the Second Amendment," Grassley said. "And the same questions of self-defense arise concerning magazines that enable firing of more than 10 rounds."
Adam Lanza, the Connecticut shooter, used a .223-caliber Bushmaster semi-automatic assault rifle with a 30-round magazine.
Heslin described how his son, Jesse, died telling other children to run when the first shots were fired. Ten children from Jesse's class made it to safety.
"What I know is that Jesse wasn't shot in the back," he said. "He took two bullets. The first grazed the side of his head, but that didn't stop him from yelling. The other hit him in the forehead.
"That means the last thing my son did was look Adam Lanza straight in the face and scream for his classmates to run," he said. "The last thing he saw was that coward's eyes."
President Obama has called on Congress to set aside differences and ignore pressure from gun-rights groups such as the NRA. In addition to the assault weapons ban, Obama is seeking legislation that would mandate a universal background check for gun owners and a limit on the ammunition in magazine clips.
Feinstein's proposal would ban the future sales of assault weapons and magazines carrying more than 10 rounds of ammunition, but it would exempt those that already exist. The legislation would also bar the sales, manufacture and importation of semi-automatic rifles that can use detachable magazines and have certain military features. Specifically, 157 weapons would be banned but Feinstein said more than 2,200 others used for hunting and sport would be excluded.
While many Republicans in the GOP-controlled House are opposing an assault weapons ban, so are some of Feinstein's fellow Democrats who hail from red states, such as Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor. He is one of several Democrats from states with high gun-ownership rates who is up for re-election in 2014.
The first assault weapons ban expired in 2004. That ban only applied to weapons that were manufactured after its enactment. Congress has tried unsuccessfully several times to renew the law.
Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn argued over background checks for gun owners. Graham argued that prosecutions of people who fail background checks has been lax.
Flynn raised his voice as he was interrupted by Graham.
"It doesn't matter," Flynn said. "It's a paper thing. I want to stop 76,000 people from buying guns illegally -- that's what a background check does."
People in the crowded hearing room began to applaud, causing Feinstein to ask for civility.