By Raju Chebium
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Shortly before Jesse Lewis was killed in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, he said something that haunts his father to this day.
"Everything's going to be OK, Dad," the 6-year-old boy said, according to Neil Heslin's written statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee for a hearing Wednesday on an assault-weapons ban proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
"Did he have some idea about what was about to happen? But at the time I didn't think much of it. I just thought he was being sweet," Heslin testified.
Heslin, who shared custody of Jesse with his wife, dropped his son off at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14. A little while later, Jesse was among the 20 students and six staff members killed by Adam Lanza, who took his own life. The 20-year-old shooter used a .223-caliber Bushmaster semi-automatic assault rifle with a 30-round magazine.
Choking up and clutching a picture of him and his son, Heslin urged Congress to approve the Feinstein bill, which would ban the weapon Lanza used and 156 other military-style assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and semi-automatic weapons. Ammunition clips that can hold more than 10 rounds would also be illegal under the proposal.
"Those guns and those clips let Adam Lanza massacre those kids," Heslin wrote. "(Jesse) lost his life at Sandy Hook Elementary because of a gun that nobody needs and nobody should have a right to have."
Feinstein's bill faces long odds though polls show a majority of Americans support some gun restrictions following the Newtown shooting.
Most Republicans and some Democrats argue that the ban wouldn't have prevented the shooting because Lanza used weapons his mother -- his first victim -- had purchased legally. The National Rifle Association has predicted that Feinstein's bill will fail and the California lawmaker herself has acknowledged that she faces a bitter fight.
Feinstein, a senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, presided over Wednesday's hearing, which was attended by about 30 family members and friends of the Newtown victims. Colorado's U.S. attorney, John Walsh, was a witness representing the Obama administration.
Feinstein was the author of a 1994 assault-weapons ban that expired 10 years later. She proposed a new ban this year after the Connecticut shooting and stressed that it would comply with the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
If her bill becomes law, Feinstein said assault-weapons owners wouldn't have to turn in their weapons because the ban would apply only to new purchases. The bill also excludes 2,200 hunting and sporting rifles and shotguns.
Congress must pass her bill, Feinstein said Wednesday, because there have been 62 mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982, seven of them last year.
"The one common thread running through these mass shootings in recent years . . . is that the gunman used a military-style, semiautomatic assault weapon or large-capacity ammunition magazine to commit the unspeakable horror," Feinstein said. "Since the Newtown massacre, several states, including California, Delaware, Maryland and New York, have shown leadership in moving to ban assault weapons or strengthen existing bans. Even so, the need for a federal ban has never been greater."
That's because people can buy the banned weapons in neighboring states that don't regulate assault weapons.
Without explicitly endorsing the Feinstein bill, Walsh said new restrictions on assault weapons of high-capacity ammunition clips can be written so that they comply with the Second Amendment.
The Justice Department hasn't provided Congress with a legal opinion on the constitutionality of Feinstein's proposal, which is co-sponsored by California Sen. Barbara Boxer and 17 other Democrats.
However, "we are confident that the legislation is headed in the right direction," Walsh testified.
An assault-style rifle made by Smith & Wesson was among the weapons James Holmes used to kill 12 people and injure 58 in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last July. Ten of the 12 victims were killed by bullets sprayed by the .223-caliber assault-style weapon.
Republicans cited studies that showed the 1994 assault weapons ban may not have stopped the flow of such weapons and pointed to other factors, like inadequate mental health services and violent movies and video games, for widespread gun violence.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he's skeptical that a new ban would achieve anything.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., argued that the government must enforce existing laws, like punishing those who lie during background checks.
Under sharp questioning by Graham, Walsh acknowledged that his office doesn't prosecute those who lie about their criminal records when buying firearms.
"I'm a bit frustrated that we say one thing, about how important it is, but in the real world we absolutely do nothing to enforce the laws on the books," Graham said.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn responded caustically that his priority is to prevent illegal weapon sales rather than spend scarce resources on catching those who commit the minor offense of lying on a gun-permit application. The audience cheered.
Also Wednesday, California Reps. Mike Thompson and Jackie Speier introduced a measure that would provide federal grants to states that come up with ways to remove guns from convicts and potentially violent mentally ill people. Thompson is chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force and Speier is the vice chairman.
The measure has the blessing of California Attorney General Kamala Harris and is modeled after a 2001 California state law.
Gannett Washington Bureau