State commission meets following Sandy Hook

Six weeks after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission met Thursday for the first time.

The commission, charged with investigating the shooting and providing public policy recommendations “in the areas of public safety, with particular attention paid to school safety, mental health and gun violence prevention” by Gov. Dannel Malloy, is comprised of 16 members and chaired by Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson. Members of the commission include teachers, public safety officials and experts in the fields of gun violence, mental health and school security.

“When this is done, we will have made our children and our entire state safer,” Malloy told the commission in his opening remarks. “The desire for changing our policies and our laws is increasing on a daily basis.”

Beginning with a moment of silence for those killed in Newtown, the panel heard from Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky, who is leading the police investigation of the shooting. Sedensky updated the commission on what he described as an ongoing investigation. After Sedensky, former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter spoke to the commission. Ritter served as district attorney in Denver and was a member of the Columbine Commission, which investigated the 1999 high school shooting in Littleton, Colo. that killed 13.

Rather than suggesting specific policy proposals, Ritter provided a blueprint of the work that lies ahead for the commission. Describing both Columbine and Newtown as “incidents we can look to where innocence is lost,” Ritter emphasized the importance of listening for the commission.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all in how people grieve. You’ll find them along a spectrum,” Ritter said. “You as commissioners are really tasked just to listen.”

After Ritter, the commission heard from University of Virginia professor Richard Bonnie. Bonnie, who chairs the Virginia Commission on Mental Health Reform, served as a consultant to the Virginia Tech Review Panel. In 2007, a gunman on the Virginia Tech campus killed 32 and injured 17 in the deadliest shooting in American history.

The commission, however, has already come under criticism from Connecticut gun advocates who feel that the group’s conclusions, and subsequent policy initiatives by Malloy, will be the same regardless of testimony.

Ed Peruta, a director at Connecticut gun-rights group CT Carry, emphasized enforcing existing laws, longer sentences for those committing gun offenses, and an improvement in mental health care as better solutions than more regulation.

“I don’t think the governor wants to know the facts. He wants an outcome,” Peruta said. “Connecticut does not have the intestinal fortitude nor the financial resources to solve all the problems.”

Shortly after the commission’s meeting, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, along with a bipartisan coalition of senators, introduced the Mental Health First Aid Bill “to expand mental health first-aid training and increase the effectiveness of mental health care across America.” Mental health care has been widely recognized by parties on both sides of the gun control debate as an important factor in preventing future mass shootings.

In addition to the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, the state’s recently formed Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children Safety will hold four working-group public hearings between Friday and next Wednesday on school safety, gun violence and mental health.

Activists on both sides of the gun debate have encouraged their supporters to attend the hearings. The website of the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action said, “It is important that pro-Second Amendment supporters show up to these hearings to voice their opposition to any reactionary anti-gun legislation.”

State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, who supports increased regulation, told the News that there has been a “public expression of interest in additional prohibitions,” and that he also expected many gun control advocates to attend the hearings.

The final hearing, which is scheduled for this coming Wednesday, will take place at Newtown High School.

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