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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Assault Weapons Ban Draws Emotional Senate Testimony

WASHINGTON (CN) - The father of a 6-year-old killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School held a framed picture of his son and fought back tears as he testified Wednesday in favor a federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

"I'm not here for the sympathy or a pat on the back," said Neil Heslin, father of Jesse Heslin. "I'm here to speak for my son. There are many changes that need to be made."

In her opening to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., detailed the events that unfolded last December in Newtown, Conn., when a "deranged killer wielding an assault weapon and armed with a high capacity ammunition magazine" gunned down 20 young children - mostly 6-year-olds.

Feinstein has co-sponsored a bill that would ban the sale, transfer, manufacture and importation of assault weapons and high capacity magazines, including the popular AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. The bill is similar to the now expired 1994 ban on assault weapons, but encompasses more weapons and attachable parts - such as pistol grips - than its predecessor.

"The one common thread running through these mass shootings in recent years from Aurora, Colorado, to Tucson, Arizona, to Blacksburg, Virginia, is that the gunman used a military style semi-automatic assault weapon or a large capacity ammunition magazine to commit unspeakable terror," Feinstein said.

Senate Republicans were not so quick to connect the nation's growing problem of gun violence to legal assault weapons, asking the Justice Department to enforce existing gun laws before Congress creates more. They insisted that mental health issues and violent video games could be just as culpable.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said rifles were used in just 2.5 percent of homicides in 2011. He also criticized the Justice Department for not prosecuting people who gave false information for background checks.

Colorado U.S. Attorney John Walsh testified at the hearing, telling Graham that his office works tirelessly on prosecuting those who get guns illegally, but that the priority is prosecuting the criminals who use the guns.

"As a prosecutor, we go for the worst of the worst cases, those are cases where a bad guy actually has a gun," Walsh said.

The next witness, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, told Graham, "I want to stop 76,000 people from buying guns illegally - that's what a background check does. If you think we're going to do paperwork prosecutions, you're wrong. We don't chase paper, we chase armed criminals."

Other Republicans, including Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, questioned the effectiveness of the 10-year ban on assault weapons imposed in 1994, stating that studies have not found solid evidence that the ban lowered gun-related crime.

Cornyn also pointed out that the law grandfathers in people who currently own assault weapons, legalizing an estimated 4 million guns legally purchased by Americans citizens.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced Heslin halfway through the hearing. Fighting back tears during his emotional speech, Heslin held a picture of his son, Jesse, who was shot in the forehead by 20-year-old Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook.

"Mental health issues, background checks, a ban on these weapons, a ban on high-capacity magazines - they all have to be done together," Heslin said. "They all have to be done simply. Common sense tells you that."

The committee also heard testimony from Dr. William Begg, who treated some of the Sandy Hook victims at the emergency room where he works.

Begg explained the destructive capabilities of the AR-15, stating that the rifle's ammunition is designed to explode once it enters the body in order to cause more damage than a standard handgun bullet, which enters the body in a straight line. The only point to these rifles is to kill people, Begg said.

Begg and Heslin were not questioned by Republican senators, as all but Graham had left the hearing prior to their testimony.

Other witnesses included law professor Nicholas Johnson, Arizona attorney David Hardy and former U.S. Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Fla. Each cautioned against knee-jerk legislation in the wake of such a tragedy, citing more studies that allegedly debunk any drop in gun crime since the 1994 law.

Hardy echoed the Republican concern of self-defense, stating that criminals will still get these weapons through straw purchasers, theft or other illegal means. Living within miles of the Mexican border, Hardy said he felt "grossly unarmed" at a client's ranch with two handguns and an AR-15 in his car, knowing that dangerous drug cartels could have been nearby.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., seemed incredulous.

"I keep being told to imagine situations where these weapons are used for self-defense," Franken said. "I can imagine it, but I haven't seen any examples."

Graham said: "Six bullets in the hands of someone defending their family are not enough. One bullet in the hands of a dangerous criminal is too many."

Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia and the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, testified that banning assault weapons is a top priority of the country's mayors. He said the first cop who died under his watch was shot and killed by an AK-47 while responding to a reported bank robbery.

Adams, the Florida congressman, insisted that the lack of laws is not the problem.

"It's the lack of enforcement of existing laws," Adams said. "This is not the time for feel-good legislation to say you did something. It's time to take a look at the root cause of violence."

The hearing marked the Judiciary Committee's third hearing related to gun violence this session. It was attended by more than a dozen family members of gun violence victims, who applauded and cheered the witnesses and senators who supported the bill.

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