WASHINGTON (AP) — A father whose 6-year-old son was killed in a Connecticut school shooting that revived the national conversation on guns was speaking before Congress on Wednesday with others affected by mass shootings in support of legislation to ban assault weapons.
Such a ban faces a difficult time in Congress, where the gun lobby and the Constitutional right to bear firearms have strong support. But President Barack Obama has made gun safety a top issue in his second term after the December shooting, which he called the worst day of his presidency.
The U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world.
Neil Heslin, a 50-year-old construction worker, lost his 6-year-old son, Jesse, along with 19 other young students and six educators in the Connecticut shooting. The students were 6 and 7 years old. The shooter, who carried his mother's legally purchased, high-powered rifle, shot and killed himself.
"It's a burden, it's more than a burden on me," Heslin said in an interview Tuesday as he and three dozen others arrived in Washington to lobby lawmakers. "But I have to do it for my little boy."
Other witnesses testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee include William Begg, an emergency room doctor who treated victims that day.
Participants in the lobbying group said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican, said he would try to help and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat and gun right supporter, expressed optimism that the Senate would produce gun legislation. But neither committed to anything specific.
"Guns that are fashioned from war don't belong on the streets," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said Tuesday, acknowledging that her legislation to ban assault weapons faced difficult odds in Congress. "Maybe I've just seen too much from my days as mayor and watching this stuff for 30 years."
In his prepared Senate testimony, Heslin said he's been told his son died yelling to people to run. He said Jesse was hit by one bullet grazing the side of his head, another hitting his forehead.
Despite the raw emotion, Feinstein's effort to ban assault weapons is expected to fall short due to opposition by the National Rifle Association and many Republicans, plus wariness by moderate Democrats.
The cornerstone of Obama's gun safety package is a call for universal background checks for gun buyers, some version of which seems to have a stronger chance of moving through Congress. Currently, only sales by federally licensed gun dealers require such checks, which are designed to prevent criminals and others from obtaining firearms.
But the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee says he opposes universal background checks and does not foresee such a measure being part of gun legislation in the House. Rep. Bob Goodlatte said such a requirement could unnecessarily inconvenience law-abiding citizens and lead to the creation of a national gun registry — something Goodlatte and many other Republicans oppose.
Instead Goodlatte says he supports strengthening the existing background check system for gun buyers and cracking down on illegal firearms sales.
Feinstein's bill would ban future sales of assault weapons and magazines carrying more than 10 rounds of ammunition but exempt those that already exist. It would bar sales, manufacturing and imports of semiautomatic rifles and pistols that can use detachable magazines and have threaded barrels or other military features. The measure specifically bans 157 firearms but excludes 2,258 others in an effort to avoid barring hunting and sporting weapons.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Philip Elliott contributed.