Newtown father reaches out to reluctant senators

Washington –– The day after giving emotional testimony in support of an assault weapons ban, Neil Heslin, who lost his 6-year-old son Jesse in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, continued to reach out to lawmakers on gun control.

As senators filed into the Senate chambers to vote on budget legislation, Heslin dodged lobbyists and reporters, trying to snare the attention of Republicans who might be persuaded on the issue of gun control.

“I’m doing everything I can,” Heslin said.

He introduced himself to lawmakers simply as someone who lost his child in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.


Neil Heslin at the Capitol

Neil Heslin at the Capitol, where he has spent the last two days advocating for gun legislation.


Heslin spoke to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who may be a swing vote on bills to expand FBI background checks and increase federal penalties for “straw purchases” or buying guns for those who are banned from owning them.

McCain said he reminds victims of gun violence like Heslin that “it was in my state that the shootings in Tucson occurred.”

On Jan. 8, 2011, an event outside a Tucson supermarket turned deadly when a gunman opened fire, killing six people and wounding former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others.

McCain said he will continue to meet with gun violence victims, including Giffords, who advocates for gun control.

Shortly after the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown, Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, pledged to raise money and assist in the gun control campaign.

Heslin was accompanied in his rounds of citizen lobbying by Steve Grinch, who also lost a son in December. Grinch’s son was shot to death during a robbery at South Carolina’s Clemson University.

Using that connection, the pair approached South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who was at the center of a drama at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday that featured Heslin as a witness.

Milwaukee police Chief Edward Flynn and Graham had a heated exchange when the lawmaker said data shows a majority of those who lie on background check forms are never prosecuted.

Flynn argued that law enforcement was working hard to prevent illegal purchases, not conducting “paper prosecutions.”

Graham might be a hard sell on gun control. But he and fellow Judiciary Committee member Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., invited Heslin and Grinch to witness the debate and votes on four gun-control bills scheduled to be considered by the committee next week.

One of those bills will be an assault weapons ban, which is unlikely to be approved by the full Senate.

But those lobbying for gun control — like Heslin, Grinch and more than 30 Newtown residents who blanketed Capitol Hill this week — may be moving the needle on other legislation, even if it’s not the full package President Obama and others wanted.

“You can’t fix the world in a day,” Grinch said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said other measures, including a bill that would increase penalties on gun trafficking and straw purchases, might win enough GOP support to pass the Senate.

He told the Connecticut Mirror he would even consider supporting the expansion of background checks — conducted now only at gun dealers — to private sales.

“I’d have to see the language,” Grassley said.

Grassley would join a growing number of Senate Republicans who are likely to support the expansion of background checks. Besides McCain, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Jeff Flake of Arizona are in talks with two Democrats, Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, on a compromise on background checks.

Blumenthal said even a partial victory on gun control was inconceivable before the Newtown massacre.

Before the horrific shootings, “anyone who advocated gun control would be at [political] risk,” Blumenthal said. “But the landscape has changed seismically.”