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Examining the Political Push for Tighter Gun Laws, Assault Weapons Ban

February 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Parents of the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary advocated to the Senate for stricter gun laws, and California Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein called for a ban on assault weapons. Ray Suarez reports on the political push to address gun violence.
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GWEN IFILL: Gun control was on the agenda for a Senate panel today. Among the witnesses was the father of a child slain two months ago in Newtown, Connecticut. He made an impassioned plea for a renewed ban on assault weapons.

Ray Suarez has our story.

NEIL HESLIN, Father of Shooting Victim: Jesse was brutally murdered at Sandy Hook school on Dec. 14th 20 minutes after I dropped him off.

RAY SUAREZ: The emotions swirling around the gun issue were vividly on display at a Senate hearing, as Neil Heslin described the killing of his 6-year-old son in Newtown, Connecticut. He was one of 20 children slain that day.

NEIL HESLIN: It’s hard for me to be here today talking about my deceased son. But I have to. I’m his voice. I’m not here for the sympathy and a pat on the back. I’m here to speak up for my son.

RAY SUAREZ: To that end, Heslin joined those speaking up for a bill to outlaw some assault- style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

It was offered by California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who said today the need for a ban has never been greater.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-Calif.: Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass shootings across the United States. And they have been accelerating in recent years; 25 of these shootings have occurred since 2006. And seven took place in 2012.

RAY SUAREZ: Feinstein says her bill would outlaw 157 semiautomatic rifles, as well as magazines that hold more than 10 bullets. Similar weapons already purchased legally would be grandfathered in.

A similar ban passed in 1994, expired in 2004, and supporters and opponents have argued ever since over whether it worked. At today’s hearing, Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said the focus should be elsewhere.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, R-Iowa: Violent video games have encouraged the killing of innocent people for sport. These ought to be of deep concern. Mental health services are not always up to par. There are occasions when people think Congress should pass a new law. The idea is a particular fix — the idea is a particular fix hasn’t been tried before and supporters might think that they have a solution to a problem. This is not the case with the assault weapons ban.

RAY SUAREZ: Republicans also complained again that current laws are not enforced, which sparked a testy exchange between South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: If it is such an important issue, why aren’t we prosecuting people who fail a background check? And there are 15 questions there. They’re not hard to understand if you’re filling out the form. So, I’m a bit frustrated that we say one thing, how important it is, but in the real world, we absolutely do nothing to enforce the laws on the books.

Now, let’s talk …

EDWARD FLYNN, Milwaukee Police Chief: Just for the record, from my point of view, Senator …

LINDSEY GRAHAM: How many cases have you made?

EDWARD FLYNN: No, it doesn’t matter. It is a paper thing.

I want to stop 76 — I want to finish the answer.

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.

RAY SUAREZ: The Feinstein proposal is not expected to pass Congress, given the opposition of the National Rifle Association, many Republicans and some Democrats.

But the Newtown tragedy has sparked a new national debate, and there is emerging support for expanding background checks. Vice President Joe Biden said today change is being seen at the polls.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: For the first time since Newtown, voters sent a clear unequivocal signal.

RAY SUAREZ: In Chicago yesterday, former state Rep. Robin Kelly won the Democratic Party’s nomination to succeed former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. In Washington today, the vice president pointed to Kelly’s pledge to fight gun violence in a city rocked by a record number of deadly shootings.

JOE BIDEN: The voters sent a message last night, not just to the NRA, but to the politicians around the country by electing Robin kelly, who stood up and stood strong for gun safety, totally consistent with our Second Amendment rights.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Biden also met with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose super PAC spent $2 million dollars for ads that attacked candidate Kelly’s opponents for their NRA support.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, we have extended coverage of the gun control debate, including new data that reveals some common ground on approaches to stemming gun violence.