DANBURY, Conn. — Two months after shooter Adam Lanza killed 26 children and staff at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, Vice President Joe Biden heralded a nationwide campaign for urgent, comprehensive overhaul of gun laws and rallied support for President Barack Obama’s administration’s reform proposals during a Thursday address in Danbury.
Roughly 200 policymakers and family members of Newtown victims wearing green ribbons in remembrance of the December shooting gathered at the Connecticut Conference on Gun Violence at Western Connecticut State University, which Lanza briefly attended, for panel discussions on gun violence and mental health. In his speech, Biden cited the public’s unshakable demand for gun control since the Newtown shooting and emphasized that reforms would not infringe on Second Amendment rights in an attempt to silence critics. Connecticut Democrats, including Sen. Chris Murphy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, also addressed the crowd, bolstering federal and state reforms.
“America has changed on this issue,” Biden said at the conference. “There is a moral price to be paid for inaction.”
Obama’s gun-control proposals include implementing universal background checks, reviving a federal assault weapons ban, prohibiting high-capacity ammunition magazines and armor-piercing bullets, enforcing gun-trafficking restrictions and boosting mental health resources. After reintroducing an assault weapons ban to Congress last month in collaboration with Murphy, Blumenthal told the News that negotiations with the Senate Judiciary Committee on a comprehensive, bipartisan reform package are “close to success” and members will reconvene next month.
“Our culture isn’t killing people,” Biden said, instead citing the lack of strict gun-control enforcement.
The National Rifle Association issued a statement in January responding to Obama’s reform proposal, claiming that “attacking firearms … is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation. Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected, and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy.”
But Murphy told the News that the reform package is not meant to “demonize” gun owners, reiterating Biden’s assertion that it will not impinge upon Second Amendment rights. Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Himes added that such “fearmongering” by opponents of the bill is unhealthy. Gun advocates did not attend the conference, which was invitation-only.
“Preventing gun violence was thought to be untouchable politically two months ago,” Blumenthal said. “That unspeakable horror has given us unstoppable momentum.”
Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy, who critiqued the delayed action of the state Legislature, endorsed Obama’s plan at the conference in hopes of implementing such reforms at the state level. He also called for an expansion of the definition of assault weapons to include those with at least one military characteristic. Though Malloy launched both the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission and the Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety earlier this year to discuss reforms, New York state passed an early gun-control bill in January that is now the model for the nation. U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Newtown First Selectman Patricia Llodra — who earned a standing ovation from the crowd for her leadership throughout the aftermath of the tragedy — agreed that Connecticut urgently needs to act.
“Connecticut needs to pass a similarly strong bill very soon,” Murphy told the News. “Our ability to pass something in Washington is dependent on the state in which this tragedy happened.”
Though Connecticut House Republican Minority Leader Larry Cafero said his colleagues have yet to come to an agreement on gun policies with legislators across the aisle, he echoed Biden’s call for “common-sense reform” that would satisfy thousands of Connecticut constituents who have contacted the Legislature.
But local policymakers are skeptical of state-led reform, claiming increased enforcement efforts will be unsustainable as cities are forced to tighten their belts for the coming fiscal year. At the conference, Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra expressed his frustration with inefficient federal legislation and the extraordinary resources his city must expend to crack down on street violence. New Haven and Hartford are the only two municipalities in Connecticut with shooting task forces, which in the capital led to a 40 percent decrease in urban homicides last year, according to Hartford police data estimates.
“The cost of making up for the lack of federal legislation is being paid for by the very poor residents of my city,” Segarra said.
Blumenthal also pushed for federal gun-trafficking legislation, as no law currently penalizes individuals for selling weapons to buyers with false identification.
Members of the Connecticut-based advocacy group March for Change turned out at the conference in support of Democrats’ reforms on both the state and federal level. The group protested last week in the Capitol, which drew over 5,500 marchers in an attempt to make state legislation a template for national policy. Co-founder Nancy Lefkowitz said she hopes to represent families like Chris and Lynn McDonnell, who spoke at the conference on behalf of their 7-year-old daughter Grace, a victim of the Newtown tragedy. Biden commended them for demonstrating “a hell of a lot more courage than I have.”
“We lost the love and life of our family,” Lynn McDonnell said. “I made a promise to her that I would be her voice.”
Since the Newtown shooting, 1,900 have died from gun violence in the U.S.