WASHINGTON– Nearly three dozen Newtown residents, including family members of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, have joined an 11th hour effort to win congressional support for an assault weapons ban.
“The damage done by an assault weapon, compared to a regular gun, is horrific,” said William Begg, an emergency room doctor from Newtown.
Begg, who treated victims of the school shootings, was one of two Newtown residents who testified at a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the proposed ban.
The other was Neil Heslin, father of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, who died in the massacre.
Heslin gave riveting and tearful testimony about dropping Jesse off at school on the morning of the shooting and of how his son died – from two bullets to the head.
“Both bullets were fired from the front,” Heslin said. “That means the last thing my son did was look [shooter] Adam Lanza straight in the face and scream to his classmates to run.”
Heslin also told lawmakers that he and his son were familiar with guns, and that Jesse had even looked through a gun magazine at home the night before the shooting. But, Heslin said, there is only one purpose for assault weapons like the Bushmaster used to shoot Jesse. “They are used to kill people.”
Heslin and others who testified in support of the ban, including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and law enforcement officials from Colorado and Wisconsin who say these guns slaughter cops, are unlikely to change many minds in the Senate, where newly proposed gun control measures will face their first test.
Most Senate Republicans, with the possible exception of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, are expected to oppose the reinstatement of a federal ban on military-style rifles that expired in 2004. At least 10 Democratic senators also oppose reinstatement of the ban.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sponsored the legislation that would outlaw the sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of 157 specifically named semiautomatic assault weapons. Today, Americans own 3.5 million to 4 million of these guns, which would still be legal to own.
Calling it “an uphill battle,” Feinstein acknowledged that approval of the ban would be tough. So has President Obama, who included it in a package of gun-control proposals that include expansion of FBI background checks on gun buyers.
But more than 30 other Newtown residents lobbying members of Congress this week on gun control are undeterred. They sat in on Wednesday's hearing, cheering testimony they liked and groaning at testimony they didn't.
And many of them cried along with Heslin at the story of his son's death.
Shelly Northrop, whose children attended Sandy Hook Elementary, said she “would take whatever I could get” from Congress on gun control, even if that did not include an assault weapons ban.
“But we won't be satisfied. I know that people say an assault weapons ban has little chance of passing, but that doesn't mean we stop trying,” she said.
Northrop belonged to the group organized by the Newtown Action Alliance, a new group lobbying for gun control. The alliance was able to bring 34 Newtown residents to Washington this week with the help of two much larger and longer established gun-control groups – the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The American Federation of Teachers also helped sponsor the trip.
Included in the group were family members of Victoria Soto, one of teachers killed at Sandy Hook.
At the Judiciary Committee hearing, opponents of an assault weapons ban argued that it would not deter criminals from obtaining these types of weapons. “We see a lot of states like Connecticut who have a lot more restrictive gun laws (than those proposed by Obama), and yet tragedies still happen,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “Just call me skeptical that passing an assault weapons ban would have an impact.”
Opponents of the proposed ban also said that Americans need access to these guns for self-defense.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., another Judiciary Committee member, said an assault weapons ban would have saved lives in Newtown.
“Some or all of those 20 beautiful children and six great educators would be alive today if assault weapons had been banned, along with high-capacity magazines,” Blumenthal said.
The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up gun control legislation, including bills banning assault weapons and expanding background checks, on Thursday. But Republicans may exercise their right to hold off consideration of the legislation until next week.
(This story originally appeared at CTMirror.org, the website of The Connecticut Mirror, an independent, non-profit news organization covering government, politics, and public policy in the state.)