As the national debate on gun control is revived following last week’s Virginia Tech tragedy, Mayor John DeStefano Jr., spoke Tuesday in support of state gun legislation that will make it easier to trace the origin of weapons used in violent crimes.
The bill, which passed the state Judiciary Committee after last-minute compromises April 11, requires gun owners to report the loss or theft of a firearm within 72 hours of when they discover, or should have discovered, that it is missing. The legislation also penalizes poor storage of guns that could lead to easy theft.
Speakers at the press conference repeatedly invoked what they called the “second crime” — illegally providing guns to the perpetrators in a shooting — and said more emphasis needs to be placed on prosecuting those who distribute firearms illegally. But opponents said the law would be invasive and ineffective.
DeStefano said the connection between owners not reporting missing guns and gun violence is “obvious.”
“Something needs to be done on the other end to keep guns from landing in the hands of criminals,” he said in a prepared statement. “If a legal gun owner isn’t reporting that their gun is missing, they are allowing the weapon to make its way into neighborhoods. That’s unacceptable.”
The proposed law — a version of which has been defeated each of the last few years — will close a loophole used by gun traffickers to avoid prosecution, said Ron Pinciaro, co-executive director of CT Against Gun Violence, the organization that led the press conference.
“All straw purchasers have to say is ‘I bought it, but it was stolen,’ and the investigation stops right there,” Pinciaro said.
Straw purchasers — people who legally buy guns in order to sell them to those who are ineligible do so — are responsible for a significant proportion of gun violence today, said Lisa Labella, co-executive director of CT Against Gun Violence, because most crimes are committed by people who do not legally purchase their weapons.
But the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen opposes the legislation, executive director Bob Crook said. The bill punishes the victims of gun theft, he said, and the gun storage provision, which prohibits storage where there is a “substantial and unjustifiable risk” of theft, is too broad and vague to be effective. More importantly, he said, it restricts the “natural right” to be able to protect oneself.
“If you are afraid, or apprehensive, about going into New Haven — and you should be apprehensive — a lot of people will say you should carry a pistol all the time,” Crook said. “When I go into certain sections of Bridgeport, Hamden or New Haven, I carry a gun.”
Crook said a more effective solution would be to create a gun trafficking task force that could pursue undercover investigations of straw purchasers.
But New Haven Police Chief Francisco Ortiz said the department needed the legislation to help hold gun traffickers legally accountable. Of the 52 illegal guns recovered so far this year, he said, only six had been reported missing.
Barbara Fair, who heads the local advocacy group People Against Injustice and is a long-time resident of New Haven, pointed to the front page of yesterday’s New Haven Register — which reported on the 40-year sentence given to the gunman responsible for the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Jajuana Cole — to exemplify why she feels tighter gun control is necessary.
She pointed out that the Register’s photograph showed only two grieving families, one for the victim and one for the attacker, both of whom were teens.
“They always stop right there,” she said. “Where is the grieving family for the one who provided the gun to that child? Because if teens don’t have a gun in their hand, they can get up after a fight and go home.”
Throughout the conference, nine assault rifles and nine handguns lay on the table beside the podium — placed there beforehand by the police to demonstrate the seriousness of the problem. But Doug Bethea, who lost his son to gun violence last November, said they were not representative of the violence occurring in New Haven.
“No one is shooting people with those guns,” Bethea said, indicating the long-barreled weapons. “Let’s stick to putting out the real guns [used in crimes], the handguns.”
Bethea said during the press conference that he was proud of the way the New Haven Police Department had dealt with pursuing justice for his son. Afterward, he said the current legislation should only be a first step toward a more aggressive regime of gun control.
“The hell with the NRA — the only people who need guns are police officers,” he said. “Drastic actions call for drastic measures.”
But Pinciaro said that even with the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech, the political will does not yet exist for prohibitions on handguns.
Under the proposed law, the first offense incurs a $90 infraction, while subsequent violations are misdemeanors. Intentionally violating the reporting provision would only be a felony on the second offense.
The conference coincided with a “Red Flag” campaign sponsored by CT Against Gun Violence, in which organizers hope to raise red flags, “both literal and figurative,” at the site of every shooting in the state. The foot-high flags pose the question, “Where did they get the gun?”