Sam Saylor's son Shane was 20 years old when he became the 20th homicide victim of 2012 in Hartford, Connecticut on October 20. The suspected gunman? Another 20-year-old.

"That day he died, I was selling cakes, raising money for the church," recalled Saylor, pastor of Blackwell Memorial AME Zion Church in the New England city, "but yet evil snatched into my life and snatched my son up."

"We haven't found our way home yet," he added, squinting as he clinched a photo of Shane in bright sunlight on the National Mall, the symbolic "front lawn of America" that stretches from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

"We haven't gotten back to our regular life yet. I surely believe we'll never get back there."

Standing alongside Saylor on Thursday were fellow faith leaders gathered in support of tougher federal gun laws in the wake of the December 14 massacre of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, an hour's drive from Hartford.

Together they began a 24-hour vigil over more than 3,300 crucifixes, Jewish stars of David, Muslim stars and crescents, and Indian Sanskrit inscriptions -- one for each gun-related death in America in the four months since Newtown.

To the east, up on Capitol Hill, the US Senate voted Thursday to debate the most ambitious gun safety legislation in nearly two decades, after a bipartisan group of lawmakers agreed on expanding background checks for firearm sales.

"The hard work starts now," said Senate majority leader Harry Reid after the 68-31 vote on the proposal championed by President Barack Obama that would also stiffen penalties for gun trafficking and ramp up school safety.

For the bishops, pastors, rabbis and reverends on the Mall, including several from Newtown, that work should have started long ago.

"It doesn't have to be this way," said Jim Wallis of the Washington-based Christian activist group Sojourners, a co-sponsor of the vigil with PICO National Network, a faith-based grassroots organization.

"The nation is so far ahead of where the political leaders are" on gun control, he said.

Matt Crebbin, senior pastor at Newtown Congregational Church, compared strident gun-lobby resistance to any fresh gun legislation to the biblical worship of idols.

"We don't have a Second Amendment issue, we have a Second Commandment crisis," said Crebbin, who led the small town's interfaith service attended by Obama two days after the Sandy Hook school shootings.

Michael McBride of The Way Christian Center in West Berkeley, outside his native San Francisco, told AFP that in the last five years, "I've had to bury seven teenagers" killed by guns.

"It's not that I get phone calls in the middle of the night to do the (funeral) service," he said. "I actually have to show up sometimes at the scene of the crime. I have to go to the homes where the family is mourning.

"I have to go to the hospital and comfort siblings who can't understand why brothers and sisters have been shot... and then we have to live with the aftermath of the trauma that has been caused."

Guns are involved in more than 30,000 deaths in the United States every year, the majority of them suicides, in a country with almost as many firearms (an estimated 300 million) as there are people (more than 315 million).

"I don't know if it has much to do with anything more than the accessibility and availability of guns," McBride told AFP.

"All the research tells us that our crime levels are not higher than France or England. We just have a lot more guns."