A father who lost his son in the Newtown shootings pleaded with senators to act on gun control at a Wednesday hearing and Vice President Joseph R. Biden proclaimed that the political dynamics of the issue have irrevocably changed — but opponents of President Obama's proposals showed no signs of budging and a key lawmaker said universal background checks are unlikely to pass Congress.
Neil Heslin, whose son, Jesse, was killed in the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that claimed the lives of 19 other children and six adults, delivered an emotional appeal before a hushed audience for a ban on so-called assault weapons and other gun control measures.
"I'm not here for the sympathy and a pat on the back, as many people stated in the town of Newtown," Mr. Heslin said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. "I'm here to speak up for my son."
"No person should have to go through what myself or any of the other victims' families had to deal with and go through and what the town of Newtown had to go through and is dealing with," he continued.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who presided over the hearing on her bill that would ban certain types of military-style, semiautomatic rifles, said Newtown has changed the conversation — and that it is not an isolated incident.
"That horrific event shocked our nation to its roots," the California Democrat said. "And the pictures of these little victims brought tears to the eyes of millions of Americans."
Sen. Charles Grassley, Iowa Republican and the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, expressed "deep personal sympathy" to Mr. Heslin in his opening remarks and said the body is determined to take action to try to prevent such an incident from happening again. He said he respected Mrs. Feinstein's convictions on the issue, but that he opposes her bill.
"[The bill] bans guns based solely on their appearance," Mr. Grassley said. "Some of those cosmetic features are useful for self-defense. Others have nothing to do with functioning of the weapons. As a result, the bill would ban some guns that are less powerful, dangerous, and that inflict less severe wounds than others that are exempt."
Perhaps the most contentious exchange during the three-and-a-half hour hearing came when South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn clashed over the issue of gun prosecutions, which drew applause from the audience and a subsequent rebuke from Mrs. Feinstein.
"When almost 80,000 people fail a background check and 44 people are prosecuted, what kind of deterrent is that?" the Republican senator asked at one point, referring to statistics from 2010. "If it's such an important issue, why aren't we prosecuting people who fail a background check?"
"How many cases have you made?" Mr. Graham asked Mr. Flynn.
"You know what? It doesn't matter — it's a paper thing," the police chief said. "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."
After the line drew some applause from the audience, Mrs. Feinstein admonished the crowd to keep expressions to themselves.
Mr. Graham acknowledged that funding will likely be threadbare for Mr. Flynn and other police chiefs, but asked again how many cases Mr. Flynn made for people failing background checks.
"We don't make those cases, senator — I have priorities," Mr. Flynn said. "We make gun cases. We make 2,000 gun cases a year, senator. That's our priority. … We're trying to prevent the wrong people [from] buying guns."
Mr. Graham responded by saying one thing everyone should be able to agree on is that the background check system for gun purchasers and the laws already on the books should work properly.
"I guess the point is if we don't want the wrong people to own guns, which we all agree, the one way to do that is to take the system that's supposed to make the distinction between a person who should and shouldn't and enforce it," he said. "I own an AR-15. I passed a background check. Isn't it really about who has the gun, sometimes more than the gun itself?"
But across town, speaking in front of a group of attorneys general from across the country, Mr. Biden issued a warning to those who want to oppose gun controls, saying voters in Chicago delivered a message Tuesday. Robin Kelly, a staunch gun control advocate, defeated a host of other candidates, including one who has received backing from the National Rifle Association, to become the Democratic nominee in a special election for the seat vacated by disgraced former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.
"The message is: there will be a moral price as well as a political price to be paid for inaction," Mr. Biden said.
Nevertheless, any legislation that makes it through the Senate would still have to clear the Republican-controlled House. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, poured a bit of cold water on Mr. Biden's proclamation, saying he didn't think universal background checks — to say nothing of more ambitious proposals such as bans on so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines — would be a part of the House's work on the issue.
"I think where we're going to find the ability to produce legislation is going to be focused on two things," the Virginia Republican said at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "One is improving the background check system, but universal background checks I do not think will be part of that. The other one will be improving the efforts to crack down on illegal sales of firearms on the streets, if you will — people who knowingly engage in transactions where they engage in selling firearms to people who should not be able to purchase them."
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.
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