WASHINGTON -- After weeks of arguing constitutional fine points and citing rival statistics, senators wrangling over gun control saw and heard the anguish of a bereft father.
Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse, was among those cut down at a Connecticut elementary school in December, asked the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday to ban assault weapons like the one that killed his child.
"I'm not here for the sympathy or the pat on the back," Heslin, 50, a construction worker, told the senators, weeping openly during much of his hushed testimony. "I'm here to speak up for my son."
At his side were photos: of his son as a baby, of both of them taken on Father's Day, six months before Jesse was among 20 first-graders and six administrators killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. That massacre has hoisted gun control to a primary political issue this year, though the outcome remains uncertain.
The hearing's focus was legislation by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines of more than 10 rounds. A Bushmaster assault weapon was used at Newtown by Adam Lanza, whose body was found with 30-round magazines.
Feinstein said such a firearm "tears peoples' bodies apart. I don't know why as a matter of public policy we can't say they don't belong."
Republicans had several answers. They argued her proposal would violate the Second Amendment's right to bear arms and take firearms from law-abiding citizens, and said current laws aimed at keeping guns from criminals are not fully enforced.
"The best way to prevent crazy people" from getting firearms is to better enforce the existing federal background check system, said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
That system is designed to prevent criminals, people with mental problems and others from obtaining guns. It applies only to weapons sold by federally licensed dealers, and expanding the system to nearly all gun transactions is central in the package of restrictions President Barack Obama unveiled last month, along with bans on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.
House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) told reporters he opposes universal background checks and predicted it would not be part of his chamber's gun legislation. He wants the current federal background check system strengthened, improving how states provide it with mental health information about citizens and cracking down on illegal gun trafficking.