Lawmakers in Connecticut Approve Gun Limits Bill [New York Times]

April 4, 2013

Article as it appeared in the New York Times

HARTFORD — With memories of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School as fresh as an open wound, Connecticut lawmakers early Thursday passed what members called the nation’s most comprehensive package of gun control legislation.

The vote came in a deeply divided Capitol packed with angry and frustrated gun owners who arrived in buses and vans carrying signs reading “Connecticut the Un-Constitution State,” “N.R.A. Stand and Fight” and “Shall Not Be Infringed.” And it came in a state that has historically been at the heart of the American gun manufacturing industry.

But 110 days after Adam Lanza fired 154 shots in about 4 minutes with a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, killing 26 children and educators, lawmakers voted for gun, school safety and mental health legislation drawn up over the past month by a bipartisan group of legislative leaders. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, has said he will sign the bill into law.

Legislators called it the most divisive issue in memory and said the legislation was an imperfect response to an impossibly complex issue. Several objected to the rushed pace with which the 138 pages became available only that morning.

Donald E. Williams Jr., a Democrat from Brooklyn, Conn., and the Senate president pro tempore, began discussion of the legislation by recalling the morning of the killings, on Dec. 14, when “for a few seconds, it was hard to breathe” as people took in the news. He concluded it by saying mass killings were not solely about mental health issues, as gun advocates say, but also about firearms.

“It’s access to the weapons of war, the access to the weapons that can kill mass amounts of children or adults in our schools and in our communities,” Senator Williams said. “That’s the essential issue when it comes to mass killings.”

The Senate minority leader, John McKinney, a Republican from Fairfield who represents Newtown, where the school is, called the legislation the most important of his 14 years in the Senate and concluded by reading the names of those who died at the school.

Senator Beth Bye, a Democrat from West Hartford, choked up as she held up a picture of one victim, Ana Marquez-Greene.

“Ana Grace would have turned 7 this week,” Senator Bye said. “Anyone who has seen her picture or heard her sing knows that our whole world lost a Connecticut treasure that day.” She added: “We can’t turn back the clock, we can only go forward. And we’ve gone forward with collaborative, innovative, groundbreaking legislation.”

Many were far less pleased, including gun owners and gun manufacturers who said the bill was too broad and focused on the wrong issues. They also criticized its becoming effective immediately, saying that put an impossible burden on manufacturers and retailers.

“It’s a mental health issue, not a firearms issue,” said Jake McGuigan, director of government relations for the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Newtown. “Nothing in this legislation would have stopped what happened in this horrible tragedy in Sandy Hook.”

Asked if there were any limits he could support on the sale or possession of weapons or magazines, he said: “No. We believe in going after the individual and not the cosmetic features of firearms.”

Two gunmakers, Mark Malkowski of Stag Arms and Jonathan Scalise of Ammunition Storage Components, both in New Britain, declined to say whether they would continue to operate in the state.

The legislation includes a ban on the sale of magazines carrying 10 or more bullets and requires registration of existing ones. It also includes an expansion of the existing assault weapons ban, requires background checks on all firearms sales and sets up a registry of weapons offenders. Among the mental health measures are changes intended to require insurers to make faster decisions on coverage for mental health and substance abuse issues, a program to help educators recognize signs of mental illness and a doubling in the number of specialized treatment teams providing intensive support to people with serious mental illness.

Hundreds of opponents of the bill gathered throughout the day at Cabela’s sporting goods in East Hartford, where a line of buses supplied by the National Rifle Association waited to transport them to the Capitol. They were joined at the Capitol by supporters of the legislation, many wearing green to commemorate Sandy Hook. The two sides mingled, sometimes engaging in relatively respectful debate, often keeping their distance.

At Cabela’s, Jim and Elma Stoveken of Ridgefield brought along two of their elementary-school-age grandsons.

“We’re not crazed for guns or anything like that,” Mr. Stoveken, 73, a retired financial manager, said. “We just have guns for target shooting and home protection.”

Legislative debate was respectful and often emotional, with legislators citing constitutional, mental health and public safety issues and the proper role of government.

On the Senate floor, Senator Tony Guglielmo, a Republican from Stafford Springs, said the legislation would affect law-abiding citizens more than criminals.

“The premise is wrong,” he said. “How do you get Adam Lanza tied up with the Rockville Rod and Gun Club? That’s what I want to know.”

In the Senate, two of 22 Democrats voted against the legislation, and 6 of 14 Republicans voted for it. In the House, 13 of the 98 House Democrats present voted against the bill, and 20 of the 51 Republicans there voted for it.

Senator Catherine Osten, a Democrat who represents a rural stretch of eastern Connecticut, said she supported elements of the bill but could not support adding new regulations on people who follow the law.

“I also cried when those children died that day, as everyone here did, and if I could assure those parents that this legislation would stop that from happening again, I would vote yes,” she said.

Senator Michael McLachlan, a Danbury Republican, said that much in the bill made him uncomfortable, but that the Newtown shooting “changed a lot of people’s viewpoints on a lot of things, on the preciousness of life, on the priority of our lives, and it certainly affected me in a very great way.”

He cited one of the victims, whose grandparents and great-grandparents he had known his whole life.

“Under different circumstances, I would look at this bill very differently,” he said, “But today I’m supporting this bill in hopes that I am properly honoring Caroline Phoebe Previdi.”

The House approved the legislation around 2:30 a.m. Thursday after debate in the chamber continued until the early morning hours. Despite overall support for the legislation, there were repeated calls for more emphasis on mental health. Some representatives, particularly Robert Sampson, a Republican from Wolcott, expressed skepticism whether the gun provisions would accomplish much, if anything, in a world where handguns, not rifles, account for the overwhelming majority of gun deaths.

But from beginning to end, the victims were never far away. Around 12:40 a.m. Mitch Bolinsky, a freshman Republican who has been elected from Newtown a month before the tragedy, rose to speak.

“On Dec. 14, evil visited my town and everything changed,” he said. He cited the strength he’d seen in Newtown, the compassion shown for the town, the painful journey everyone had been through and read the names of those who died at the school. He said the legislation was not perfect, especially on mental health but said his constituents overwhelmingly supported the firearms provisions and as a result he would vote in favor of the bill.

“I dedicate my vote to the memory of those whose lives were lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” he said.