WASHINGTON — Neil Heslin held up a large photo of his slain first-grade son and tearfully urged lawmakers to approve Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposed federal ban on assault weapons. Photos of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims hung in the congressional hearing room and uniformed police officers sat in attendance.
The grieving father’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee silenced the room as he spoke of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 people dead, 20 of them first-grade students.
“If keeping these unnecessary weapons off the street would have let one more of these children leave that school building, it might have been my Jesse,’’ Heslin said.
Against long odds, Feinstein, a Democrat from California, sought to build support Wednesday for her assault weapons ban, inviting law enforcement officials, gun violence victims and a Newtown emergency room physician to the packed hearing.
“No person should have to go through what myself or any of the other victims’ families had to go through and what the town of Newtown had to go through,” Heslin said. “I have to go home at night to an empty house without my son.... It just breaks my heart that something like that could happen in this country, in an elementary school.”
Feinstein, who wrote the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired a decade later, has proposed a new, tougher measure following the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown.
Her bill would prohibit the sale, import and manufacture of more than 150 weapons and ammunition magazines that can accept more than 10 rounds. Those who legally own assault weapons – 3.5 million to 4 million, by one estimate – would be allowed to keep them. Sale of existing weapons would require buyers to undergo background checks.
“The need for a federal ban has never been greater,” said Feinstein, who has made gun control one of her signature issues. She became San Francisco mayor in 1978 after Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot to death in City Hall.
“It’s an uphill job all the way,” she said. But she believes the public is behind her view that “weapons designed for war don’t belong on the streets of our cities.”
The steep climb for winning approval of her measure was apparent as committee Republicans questioned whether the 1994 ban reduced gun violence and contended that more aggressive enforcement of existing gun laws would do more to reduce gun violence than new restrictions.
Feinstein has not secured a GOP co-sponsor for the bill. And she continues to struggle to line up support from red-state Democrats.
“Just call me skeptical that passing this assault weapons ban would have any real impact,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
“I own an AR-15,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “I passed the background check. Isn’t it really about who has the gun, sometimes more than the gun itself?”
Chris W. Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Assn.'s Institute for Legislative Action, said Feinstein “showed clearly today that she isn’t serious about finding solutions to the problems of violent crime and mass violence in our country. By allowing audience applause and witness interruptions, she stifled any reasonable discussion of what will work and what will not.”
He said Feinstein had not addressed the Justice Department’s research memo, “which clearly shows that her gun and magazine ban proposals won’t work without mandatory confiscation.”
Responding to arguments that assault weapons account for a small percentage of homicides, Dr. William Begg, director of emergency medical services at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut, said, “Please don’t tell that to the people of Tucson or Aurora or Columbine or Virginia Tech, and don’t tell that to the people in Newtown.”
Asked about the injuries to the Sandy Hook victims, Begg cited medical privacy rules. But he said “most of the victims actually didn’t come in. And when you have such horrific injuries to little bodies, that’s what happens. They don’t even make it to the hospital.”