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As support grows for tougher gun laws, father of Newtown victim keeps 'reliving my loss'

A Senate hearing on proposed legislation banning military-style assault weapons turned testy and emotional on Wednesday, just one day after a new NBC/Wall Stree

A Senate hearing on proposed legislation banning military-style assault weapons turned testy and emotional on Wednesday, just one day after a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll revealed a growing number of Americans in favor of tougher gun laws.

The poll found 61% believe laws covering the sales of firearms should be stricter--up five points from January, when only 56% were in support of tougher gun legislation. By contrast, the poll found only 4% arguing for more relaxed gun laws, and 34% leaning toward keeping legislation as is.

The trend “shows the power of President Obama’s campaign on the matter,” said Hardball host Chris Matthews on Wednesday.

Since the horrific Newtown shooting last December, the president has pushed for Congress to act on a slew of gun control measures, including a universal background check system, new gun trafficking statutes, and a ban on the sale of assault weapons, which was the centerpiece of Wednesday’s emotionally charged and, at times, heated Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

The most searing moment of the day came when Neil Heslin recalled saying goodbye to his six-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, on the morning of the day Lewis was killed alongside 19 of his classmates and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary.

“As he was getting out of the truck, he hugged me, and held me,” said Heslin, fighting back tears at Wednesday's hearing. “And I can still feel that hug... He said everything is going to be ok, Dad. It’s all going to be ok. And it wasn’t ok.”

Heslin joined Hardball on Wednesday, saying that he would support any and all changes to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. On the recommendation of the National Rifle Association to put an armed guard in every school, Heslin said he thought it would be helpful, but not enough “to solve the problem.” Far more effective, he argued, would be a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“A key factor in all these mass murders or mass killings was a weapon and a high-capacity magazine,” said Heslin on Hardball Wednesday. “I think it needs to start with a ban on certain types of guns and weapons. Secondly, a ban on high-capacity magazines.” Heslin also argued for better mental health care, and mandatory federal background checks, which many pro-gun rights advocates oppose on the grounds that it could lead to a national gun registry and unnecessarily burden law-abiding citizens.

In fact, earlier in Wednesday’s hearing, background checks became the subject of a heated clash between Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Milwaukee police chief Edward Flynn, who said to the South Carolina senator:  “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!”

Despite the dramatic exchange, however, the most enduring image from Wednesday’s hearing was of Heslin, seated beside two photos of his son--one as a toddler and the other as a young boy. “It’s not easy to go anywhere, or be some place, and have to defend--try to defend the reasons why things should change,” said Heslin. “It’s very hard. It’s very emotional. I just keep reliving my loss. The loss of Jesse.”