It may be politically quixotic, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein proceeded undeterred Wednesday in seeking an updated version of the assault weapons ban she sponsored in 1994 that expired a decade later.
At an emotional committee hearing, Feinstein brought together families who lost loved ones to gun violence, police officials and others to call for banning military style weapons from civilian use.
"It is hard for me to be here today to talk about my deceased son but I have to," sobbed Neil Heslin, whose son, Jesse, was one of 20 first-graders shot to death in December in a Connecticut school. "I am his voice. I am not here for the sympathy or a pat on the back. There's many people that stayed in the town of Newtown. I am here to speak up for my son."
Despite later testimony from witnesses who cited statistics in challenging the effectiveness of tougher gun laws, Feinstein and other supporters said they couldn't understand how anyone could argue that the general public has a constitutional right to weapons designed purely to kill as fast and brutally as possible.
"This is not a class. This is not a case study. People die. That's what happens," said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in arguing that police officers in his city get outgunned by criminals.
"No one has ever been able to explain why a civilian should have a military style assault weapon for anything," he added to applause in the hearing room.
Fierce opposition by the influential National Rifle Association and conservative legislators, including some Democrats, makes it virtually impossible that the kind of ban proposed by Feinstein will win congressional approval.
Instead, the legislative focus has shifted to expanding and strengthening background checks for gun purchases, as well as toughening laws against gun trafficking and so-called straw purchases.
At the conclusion of Wednesday's Judiciary Committee hearing, Feinstein acknowledged the challenge, saying: "It's an uphill climb."
Clearly hoping the emotional scenes of Heslin and other victims of gun violence would generate public pressure on Congress to act, she said victory could be possible "with a little bit of help from the people of America."
President Barack Obama has proposed a package that includes a ban on semi-automatic firearms that mimic military assault rifles, as well as limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds and requiring background checks on all gun sales to close a loophole for private transactions.
Feinstein is pushing the weapons ban component of legislation the Judiciary Committee will consider in coming weeks. She led the battle for the 1994 assault weapons ban, which ended in 2004 when Congress failed to renew it.
Photos of the Newtown victims filled a poster behind Feinstein as she opened Wednesday's hearing by saying a renewed push for an assault weapons ban was necessary "because the massacre in Newtown was sadly not an anomaly."
Citing seven mass shootings in 2012 that included notorious incidents in Aurora, Colorado, and the Connecticut attack, Feinstein said "we cannot allow the carnage I have described to continue."
Her proposal would ban the manufacture or sale of hundreds of semi-automatic weapons modeled after military assault rifles, as well as ammunition magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds.
Anticipating arguments by the NRA and other opponents, Feinstein made clear the proposal only applied to future sales, saying anyone who legally owns one of the weapons targeted could keep it.
In addition, the legislation specifically excludes more than 2,000 kinds of shotguns and other firearms designed and used for hunting and sporting purposes, she noted.
A video clip she played showed how legal semi-automatic rifles can be easily modified to fire like fully automatic weapons that are banned under current law.
Republican opponents of Feinstein's proposal argued that the 1994 ban proved ineffective, citing studies that determined the law had no direct effect in reducing gun violence.
In one of several clashes between legislators and witnesses, conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina challenged Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn over a lack of prosecutions of people who failed to pass background gun checks.
When Graham said the low number of prosecutions showed current laws weren't being enforced, Flynn angrily responded that police officers have to prioritize resources and go after armed criminals instead of "chasing paper," such as failed background checks.
"We don't chase paper. We chase people who have guns illegally," Flynn said, talking over Graham's efforts to stop him.
Another witness, U.S. Attorney John Walsh of Colorado, later responded to a similar argument from conservative Sen. John Cornyn of Texas by saying that "we go for the worst of the worst."
"The worst of the worst is a bad guy actually using a gun," Walsh said, adding that the 1.5 million gun sales rejected by a failed background check was "a record of success" regardless of how many prosecutions ensued.
Feinstein and other supporters also noted that limits on ammunition magazines would require attackers in mass shootings to reload more frequently, providing more time to stop them.