Robinson: A grieving father's plea
Most of our top elected officials probably didn't notice - they were too busy making fools of themselves over an idiotic budget "crisis" of their own manufacture - but something worth remembering happened in Washington this week: A grieving parent pleaded softly for a ban on military-style weapons like the one used to kill his son.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee could not help but be transfixed by the witness who sat before them Wednesday, opening his presentation with a heartbreaking introduction.
"My name is Neil Heslin," his prepared testimony began. "Jesse Lewis was my son. He was a boy that loved life and lived it to the fullest. He was my best friend. On Dec. 14, he lost his life at Sandy Hook Elementary because of a gun that nobody needs and nobody should have a right to have. I'm here to tell his story. I know what I am doing here today won't bring my son back, but I hope that maybe if you listen to what I say today and you do something about it - maybe nobody else will have to experience what I have experienced."
It has been two and a half months since the massacre of innocents in Newtown, Conn. - long enough, history would suggest, for the shock to fade and for the momentum toward sensible gun control measures to dissipate. Indeed, the consensus among pundits and others supposedly in the know is that the bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for a renewed assault-weapons ban has no chance of becoming law.
That may be the case. But the pro-gun lobby still seems awfully nervous, as if the impact of Newtown might be different from that of Aurora, Tucson, Blacksburg and all the other cities whose names have become shorthand for instances of mass murder.
It was painful to listen as Heslin described his son's last day, which began with a stop at the Misty Vale Deli for breakfast.
"He got his favorite sandwich: sausage, egg and cheese, on a hard roll. And he ordered me one. He always - would always do that. I would get a coffee, and Jesse would get what he called a coffee, but it was a hot chocolate. We proceeded to the school. It was 9:04 when I dropped Jesse off, the school clock. Jesse gave me a hug and a kiss at that time, said, 'Goodbye. I love you.' He stopped, and he said, 'I love Mom, too.'
"That was the last I saw of Jesse as he ducked around the corner. Prior to that, when he was getting out of the truck, he hugged me and held me, and I can still feel that hug and that pat on the back. He said: 'Everything's going to be OK, Dad. It's all going to be OK.'"
Heslin described how Jesse was hit by two bullets, one grazing the side of his head and the other striking his forehead. "Both bullets were fired from the front," Heslin wrote in his prepared testimony. "That means the last thing my son did was look Adam Lanza straight in the face and scream to his classmates to run. The last thing he saw was that coward's eyes."
Lanza was a troubled young man who fired those bullets from his mother's AR-15 Bushmaster assault rifle - a weapon made not for hunting game or shooting at targets but for killing people.
Neil Heslin is no anti-gun fanatic - he grew up around guns, began shooting when he was 8, and taught Jesse how to safely use a BB gun. The point he made to the committee is simple: Some guns are such efficient machines for murder that allowing their sale is inherently unsafe.
Reaction from the senators who heard Heslin's testimony was polite but predictable. Opponents of the assault-weapons ban offered variations on the National Rifle Association's standard position - contradicted by tons of research - that the problem isn't the gun, it's the disturbed person who uses it.
But the NRA and its allies are on the defensive. Organized and funded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the nation's wealthiest men, gun-control advocates are pushing back; on Tuesday, more than $2 million from Bloomberg's super PAC helped defeat a House candidate in Chicago who had an "A" rating from the NRA.
Congress might not be moved by what Neil Heslin had to say. But I believe the nation has more compassion and better sense.
Eugene Robinson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.