By Jonathan Easley - 02/27/13 04:11 PM EST
Passions ran high on Wednesday as senators debated gun-control legislation at a packed hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The hearing, which was called to examine Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) proposed ban on assault weapons, turned heated as Republican senators challenged the law enforcement officials who were on hand to argue in favor of increased gun controls.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked U.S. Attorney John Walsh of Colorado and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn how often they prosecuted misconduct in background checks for firearm sales.
“If we’re going to expand background checks, we ought to start enforcing the laws that are on the books,” Graham said.
Flynn said he didn’t know if he had referred any cases for prosecution, but took issue with Graham’s line of questioning as the two men shouted over one another.
“We make 2,000 gun cases a year, we’re not paper chasers,” Flynn said. “We don’t chase paper, we chase hard criminals!”
The hearing room erupted in cheers, prompting Feinstein to ask Graham and Flynn to remain civil and for the room to remain quiet. Flynn got another round of applause later in the hearing for comparing the assault weapons ban to the restrictions on air travel after 9/11, which he says took the weapons of airplanes out of the hands of terrorists.
Feinstein opened the hearing by making the case for a renewal of the assault weapons ban. With the faces of the victims of the massing shooting in Newtown, Conn., displayed behind her, Feinstein said increased restrictions on military-style assault weapons are needed to prevent further tragedies.
Witnesses at the hearing included Neil Heslin, the father of one of the young victims in Newtown, and an emergency medical services professional who arrived at the scene of the massacre.
“Jesse was brutally murdered at Sandy Hook school,” Heslin said through tears. “He was six and a half years old. The day he was born was the happiest day of my life. The saddest day of my life was December 14, the worst day of my life.”
Heslin said he fully supports the Second Amendment and is himself a gun owner, but said anyone who argues they need an AR-15 — the kind of gun used to kill 26 in Newtown — for self-defense is being “dishonest.”
Feinstein asked all those who had been affected by gun violence to stand, and a group of about seven stood up. She also asked a group of law enforcement to stand, and more than a dozen officers rose to their feet.
“On Dec. 14, 20 sets of parents received a call no parent ever wants to receive, that their son or daughter had died earlier that day,” Feinstein said. “That horrific event shocked our nation to its roots and the pictures of these little victims brought tears to the eyes of millions of Americans.”
Led by Feinstein, Senate Democrats have introduced legislation to ban the sale and manufacture of more than 150 types of semi-automatic weapons with military-style features. The legislation would ban magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition and require people who already own assault rifles to use secure storage and safety devices.
Opponents say the proposal runs roughshod over Second Amendment rights.
In his opening statement, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member on the Judiciary panel, noted the emotionally charged nature of the issue, and said it should be everyone's desire to curb instances of mass violence. Grassley addressed Heslin directly.
“Mr. Heslin, I express personally my deep sympathy for your loss and that of your neighbors. We all share their pain. We do not want anything like this to happen again. We are determined to take effective, constitutional action to prevent future catastrophes."
Grassley argued the previous assault weapons ban was ineffective, and said Feinstein's bill is full of "arbitrary distinctions" over the “cosmetic features” of some guns that are legitimately used for self-defense. He also said it "brings constitutional questions about the Second Amendment," and argued Congress could be more effective if it enforced current laws and addressed issues like mental health.
Feinstein’s legislation faces opposition from members of both parties, and is unlikely to pass the Senate. Democrats are focusing their energy on passing other gun-control measures, such as universal background checks, that could draw Republican support.
Democrats have separated their gun-control proposals into four bills in order to prevent opposition to one from torpedoing the others.
Graham said he agreed with President Obama’s plea to give every gun bill a vote.
“I couldn’t agree more,” he said. “I think we should take legislation like this up and go on record and make our prospective cases.”
—This story was last updated at 12:33 p.m.