WASHINGTON -- Battling tears, the father of one of the first-graders slain at the December elementary school massacre in Connecticut pleaded with senators on Wednesday to ban assault weapons like the gun that killed his 6-year-old son.
"I'm not here for sympathy," Neil Heslin, a 50-year-old construction worker who said he grew up with guns and had been teaching his son, Jesse, about them. "I'm here because of my son."
Heslin spoke for 11 minutes, his voice barely audible and breaking at times, to the Senate Judiciary Committee that is deeply divided over the issue of curbing guns.
The panel was holding a hearing on a bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines that can carry more than 10 rounds. Feinstein and her allies said her measure would reduce the deaths such high-powered firearms can cause, but Republicans on the panel said the move would violate the constitutional right to bear arms and take guns away from law-abiding citizens who use them for self-defense.
Heslin said he supports sportsmen and the Second Amendment right for citizens to have firearms. But he said that amendment was written centuries before weapons as deadly as assault weapons were invented.
"No person should have to go through what myself" and other victims' families have had to endure, Heslin told the lawmakers.
He recalled the morning of Dec. 14, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster assault weapon to kill 20 first-graders and six staffers at the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
"He said it's all going to be OK," Heslin said his son told him when he dropped him off at school. He added, "And it wasn't OK."
Despite Newtown and other mass shootings, the bruising, difficult path through Congress that gun control legislation faces was underscored Wednesday when the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said he opposes universal background checks for gun purchases, a central piece of President Barack Obama's plan for curbing gun violence. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., told reporters that the proposal could lead to creation of a federal gun registry -- which the Obama administration has said will not happen.
Wednesday's Senate Judiciary hearing was its third since the Newtown tragedy made gun violence a top-tier national issue. The Judiciary panel could begin writing legislation as early as Thursday, but that session is likely to be delayed until next week.
Numerous relatives and neighbors of victims of Newtown, as well as other shootings at Aurora, Colo., and Virginia Tech filled the large hearing room.
At one point, Feinstein played a video showing how a bump fire slide, a piece of equipment added to an assault weapon, allows it to rapidly fire many rounds of ammunition, much as a machine gun would.
"The need for a federal ban has never been greater," Feinstein said.
The panel's top Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, expressed sympathy for gun violence victim, but said existing gun laws are not being adequately enforced, including background checks designed to prevent criminals from getting weapons.
"We should be skeptical about giving the Justice Department more laws to enforce" when it's not enforcing current ones, Grassley said.
Grassley said he believed Congress will eventually take action on boosting penalties for illegally trafficking guns, on more adequately keeping guns from people with mental problems, and encouraging states do a better job of reporting mental health records of potential gun buyers to the federal background check system.