Bipartisan task force to tackle gun policy

One month after a shooter took 27 lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Democratic and Republican congressional leaders announced a joint legislative task force to propose policies aimed at preventing similar future tragedies.

The bipartisan task force, announced in a Tuesday morning press conference, will tackle issues including gun regulation, mental health and school safety. It plans to review the current laws and release its legislative proposals by late February. The legislature’s joint task force will work concurrently with a Sandy Hook Commission created earlier in the month by Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and a federal task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden.

“The eyes of the nation are on Connecticut to see how we respond to the horrific tragedy in Newtown and the plague of gun violence,” said State Senate President Donald Williams Jr. at Tuesday’s press conference. “Our children’s safety is not a partisan issue, and I am pleased to join with Democrats and Republicans in crafting a bipartisan plan to reduce violence, improve school security and address access to mental health services.”

Since the shooting took place on Dec. 14, dozens of legislative responses have already been filed, including an expanded assault weapons ban, a public registry of gun owners and increased funding to mental health care services. The task force’s main job will involve shepherding these proposals through their respective committees so that they can come to a vote by late February — several months before the end of the five-month legislative session.

“It is our sincere hope that we can come together and reach consensus on legislation that will safeguard our children and society as a whole while at the same time honor our constitutional rights,” State House Republican Leader Larry Cafero said.

State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney said that many of the proposals the task force will consider are proposals that would have come up in the legislature either way, though the Newtown tragedy has lent them “a sense of impetus and urgency.” He mentioned adding additional assault weapons to the current ban, as well as banning high-capacity ammunition magazines and awarding grants to public schools to strengthen security measures.

Connecticut currently has an assault weapons ban in place, though that ban renders specific models illegal when they possess at least two attributes on an extensive list, including a magazine that attaches to the pistol outside of the pistol grip and a folding or telescoping stock. Since this definition was put into place in 2001, gun manufacturers circumvented the ban by manufacturing their weapons to possess one or none of the attributes, said Mike Lawlor, undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning for Connecticut.

On Tuesday afternoon, the New York State Assembly passed a Senate-backed bill that tightened its assault weapons ban by changing the definition of an assault weapon as a gun possessing one, rather than two, of the attributes. The bill is expected to be passed by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, making New York the first state to put new laws into place in response to the Newtown tragedy. Lawmakers may take New York’s bill as an example, Lawlor said.

Earlier this month, Gov. Malloy created a Sandy Hook advisory commission to recommend policies to prevent future violence. Members on the commission include experts on education, mental health, school security and public safety. Critics noted that gun advocates and sellers were conspicuously absent from the appointments.

The commission is due to report its proposals to the governor by March 15, over two months before the end of the legislative term. Spokespeople for the governor’s office and the legislature did not respond to questions about how the governor’s commission and the legislative task force will collaborate, if at all.

The current legislative session will adjourn on June 5.

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