WASHINGTON -- The father of a six-year-old victim of December's mass shooting in Connecticut tearfully pleaded on Wednesday for U.S. lawmakers to outlaw assault weapons during a heartwrenching and often heated congressional hearing on gun control.
"Jesse was the love of my life," Neil Heslin, father of Jesse, told a panel of senators as he held up a framed photo of himself and his only child as spectators at the hearing openly wept. "He was the only family I had left."
Heslin, a 50-year-old construction worker, dismissed arguments by gun-control foes that banning assault weapons violates the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment right to bear arms.
"When it was written almost 300 years ago, we didn't have these weapons that we have today; they had muskets and cannons," he said.
Assault rifles, on the other hand, have no place in the hands of civilians, given they "were used in a battlefield in Vietnam. They were used in the Persian Gulf, they were used in Afghanistan, in Iraq. The sole purpose is to put a lot of lead on a battlefield quickly."
Jesse was one of 19 first-grade pupils gunned down in Newton, Conn., in December by a troubled young man toting his mother's assault rifles. Six adults also died in Adam Lanza's rampage, including his mother as she lay in bed.
The latest mass shooting to horrify Americans, however, has served as a tipping point, with a measurable shift in public attitude in favour of tougher gun-control laws in a nation with the highest rate of firearms ownership in the world.
In the aftermath of Newtown's bloody carnage, polls now suggest the majority of Americans support both an assault-weapons ban and universal background checks.
The new zeitgeist wasn't readily apparent at Wednesday's Senate hearings, however, when the Republicans on the panel and some of the witnesses argued against a ban. The powerful National Rifle Association, which receives funding from gun manufacturers, in turn contributes to the campaigns of several Republican legislators, and some Democrats in gun-friendly states too.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate's judiciary committee, has introduced a bill in the upper chamber that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The proposed legislation is part of U.S. President Barack Obama's push for tougher gun-control laws in the wake of Newtown. The Senate committee is slated to consider several gun bills as early as today.
The hearing frequently grew heated between those for and against Feinstein's bill. Nonetheless, when applause broke out among spectators -- unusual during a Senate hearing -- each time it was in response to those arguing in favour of tougher gun-control laws.
Edward Flynn, the police chief of Milwaukee, was particularly passionate as he argued with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who accused law enforcement of neglecting to prosecute those who fail existing background checks.
Republicans argue more diligent enforcement of existing laws makes more sense than imposing new ones.
"We don't chase paper, senator, we chase armed criminals," Flynn snapped as spectators whooped and applauded.
Flynn also alleged opposition to gun control is often fuelled by "commerce," not concerns for public safety, noting the gun business in the U.S. is a multi-billion-dollar industry.
In his remarks to the hearing, Graham frequently spoke of hypothetical situations in which civilians would need assault rifles to fend off "gangs of armed criminals."
Democratic Sen. Al Franken urged his fellow lawmakers to deal in reality, not in fantasy.
"I can imagine those hypothetical cases, but I'm not sure what value that holds," he said. "But I don't have to imagine someone using a 30-round magazine, or several, to kill 20 children, because that happened."
The NRA tweeted throughout the Senate hearing, including one curious dispatch that appeared to boast in the first hour of testimony, Americans had bought an additional 150 AR-15s, the assault weapon used in several mass shootings.
-- The Canadian Press