Republican senators have strongly opposed the re-instatement of an assault weapons ban, even as the father of one of the children killed in the Newtown massacre implored them to ban the military-style rifles that are increasingly used in shooting rampages in the US.
Two months after the Newtown school shooting that left 20 children and six educators dead, the US Senate’s judiciary committee on Wednesday held a hearing on chairwoman Dianne Feinstein’s bill to ban assault weapons.
“No person should have to go through what myself or any of the other victims’ families went through,” Neil Heslin, the father of six-year-old Jesse, who was killed in the Newtown rampage, told the committee.
Large pictures of Jesse were displayed in the hearing room, and Mr Heslin struggled to retain his composure while describing his final morning with his son.
“I always supported the second amendment … I grew up with firearms,” Mr Heslin said, adding that he shot clay pigeons with his father. He said that he bought Jesse a BB gun for Christmas the year before.
But he strongly opposed the use of military-style weapons like the Bushmaster .223-calibre rifle with 30-round clips that was used to kill his son.
William Begg, an emergency room doctor who was on duty at the local hospital the day of the Newtown shooting, also struggled to hold back tears as he described treating victims of gun violence. “Please make the right decision” and ban assault weapons, he said.
Ms Feinstein, the California Democrat behind the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired after a decade, has proposed a new bill that would ban the sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of 157 specific semi-automatic weapons, as well as ammunition magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds.
But Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the committee, said the bill would ban guns based solely on their appearance.
“Some of those cosmetic features are useful for self-defence. Others have nothing to do with the functioning of the weapon,” Mr Grassley said. “As a result, the bill would ban some guns that are less powerful, dangerous, and that inflict less severe wounds than others that it exempts.”
He said the “arbitrary distinctions” in the bill could contravene the second amendment of the Constitution, which gives Americans the right to bear arms.
Every Republican on the committee voiced opposition to the bill, saying that the people with the guns were the problem, not the guns themselves.
Gun control has been on the legislative agenda since the Newtown school shooting in December, shocking the White House and lawmakers into action on an issue usually considered too politically toxic to touch.
President Barack Obama has exhorted Congress to ban military-style assault weapons and to outlaw high-capacity ammunition magazines.
He has also called for all prospective gun owners to be submitted to background checks by closing the loophole that enables people who buy weapons at gun shows or privately to do so without any checks.
Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House judiciary committee, which will take the lead on writing legislation in the lower chamber, said he opposed universal background checks, bans on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, and the creation of a new registry for all gun owners, saying the proposals would inconvenience law-abiding citizens.
Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass shootings in the US, Mrs Feinstein told Wednesday’s hearing, adding that the pace had been accelerating: 25 shootings have occurred since 2006, with seven of them taking place last year.
“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 large-capacity ammunition magazine to commit the unspeakable horror,” she told the committee.
The most recent Gallup poll found that 58 per cent of Americans wanted stricter gun laws, up sharply from 43 per cent in 2011.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Nicole Mortimer