Supporters and opponents of a bill banning military-style assault weapons debated the merits of once again banning the weapons at an emotionally charged hearing Wednesday, even though senators acknowledge that the proposal lacks the support necessary to pass the closely-divided Senate.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) stands next to a display of assault weapons during a news conference in January on Capitol Hill. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In the most dramatic exchange, the father of a 6-year-old boy killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., wept openly and showed pictures of his son as he urged senators to reinstate the ban.

Neil Heslin recalled that on the day of the shooting, Dec. 14, he took his son, Jesse Lewis, to a local diner where they ordered the child's normal breakfast sandwich of sausage, egg and cheese and a hot chocolate.

As Jesse said good-bye to his father outside the school, Heslin said, Jesse told him, "It's going to be okay."

"He told me it'd be okay," Heslin said. "And it wasn't okay. ... I saw something that shouldn't happen at an elementary school."

Members of the audience openly wept as he spoke.

The hearing comes as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to consider several gun-related bills as early as Thursday, though the panel's Republicans say they plan to use their right to delay consideration of the bills for at least a week.

Among the bills the committee will eventually consider is the proposed assault weapons ban, introduced last month by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), which would ban almost 160 specific military-style firearms. The list includes semiautomatic rifles or pistols that can be used with a detachable or fixed ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds and have specific military-style features, including pistol grips, grenade launchers or rocket launchers.

The bill, which has 22 Democratic co-sponsors, also would require background checks for the sale or transfer of grandfathered weapons and would bar the sale or transfer of large-capacity feeding devices owned before the bill’s enactment. Current assault weapon owners also would need to safely store their firearms. Unlike the original federal ban passed in 1994, the new ban would be permanent.

At the hearing Wednesday, Feinstein used video examples to demonstrate how easily shooters can fire rounds from some of the weapons she hopes to ban.

"The need for a federal ban has never been greater," Feinstein said, citing the requests of law enforcement officials and state governments pushing Congress to strengthen federal gun laws.

Even though Feinstein's assault weapons ban is unlikely to pass the full Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) granted her request for a hearing as a courtesy, according to aides. Senators heard from eight witnesses, including John Walsh, the U.S. attorney for Colorado and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn.

Tempers flared when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) quizzed Walsh and Flynn on prosecutions of people who fail gun background checks.

As Graham questioned Walsh, Flynn interjected: “I want to stop 75,000 people from buying guns illegally! That’s what a background check is.”

When Graham asked Flynn how many background check cases he had referred for prosecution, the chief snapped back: "We don’t chase paper, we chase armed criminals."

William Begg, an emergency room doctor who treated injured survivors of the Sandy Hook shooting, told lawmakers that "most of the victims actually didn’t come in and we had such horrific injuries to little bodies, that’s what happens. They don’t make it to the hospital."

Bodies of Sandy Hook shooting victims had three to 11 bullets each, Begg said, citing the state coroner's report on the shooting. "When a child has three to 11 children bullets and its an assault type bullet, it explodes in the body. ... That’s not a survivable injury," he said.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee's ranking Republican, raised doubts about the efficacy of a new assault weapons ban by noting that a previous 10-year ban that expired in 2004 did little to deter mass shooters or reduce gun-related violence.

"When something has been tried and not found to work, we should try different approaches rather than reenacting that which failed," Grassley said.

He suggested that the committee is more likely to advance bills that strengthen the nation's gun background check system, make gun trafficking a federal crime and find ways to bolster the government's funding for mental-health research.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost


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Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to William Begg as a surgeon. He is an emergency room doctor. The post has been updated.