Compromise sought in state gun proposals

Over two months after a gunman killed 26 students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the state Legislature took a major step forward on Tuesday in passing gun violence and mental health services legislation intended to respond to the mass shooting.

The gun violence and mental health services working groups, two of the three groups that make up the Legislature’s bipartisan task force, delivered their recommendations to be included in the task force’s final bill. The third working group, a panel that examined school security, delivered its recommendations almost two weeks ago. One of the task force’s leaders, Senate President Don Williams, said that it hopes to deliver an omnibus bill incorporating all three groups’ proposals by next Wednesday.

“I understand that the incident that brought us here is one of the most unfortunate incidents that ever happened in Connecticut,” said Rep. Craig Miner, the Republican co-chair of the gun violence working group. “What it has done, I think, is that it has permitted, if not required, all of us to learn a lot more about mental health, a lot more about guns, a lot more about school safety than I probably ever wanted to. It’s probably taken a lot of us out of our comfort zone.”

Both the mental health services and the school safety working groups presented their recommendations to the task force in the form of consensus items, which had received bipartisan support, and nonconsensus items, which had not. The gun violence group, on the other hand, delivered separate Democratic-endorsed items and Republican-endorsed items — a testament to the contentious nature of the proposals in question.

Both caucuses of the working group agreed on a majority of proposed items, including raising the minimum age to own a gun from 18 to 21, mandating universal background checks on all gun sales, requiring gun permits to purchase ammunition, limiting the number of guns a permit-holder can buy to one per 30-day period and strengthening the regulation of straw purchases — the process by which a permit-holder legally purchases a gun for a person not authorized to own one.

However, the Democrats’ most prominent two proposals — to tighten the ban on assault-style weapons and limit the size of ammunition magazines to contain no more than 10 bullets — were absent from the Republicans’ proposal. Pat O’Neil, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus, said that a ban on high-capacity magazines is unnecessary because the Republicans’ plan would not allow people without gun permits to purchase any ammunition to start.

“[The Republican proposals are] a comprehensive, well-thought-out approach to gun safety that we believe will make our schools and society in general safer,” O’Neil said. “At the same time, it recognizes the constitutional rights to individuals that we continue to uphold.”

Democrats on the gun violence working group could not be reached for comment.

The Democrats’ signature proposed ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines also figured prominently in a push by Gov. Dannel Malloy late last month to force the gun violence working group to move more quickly. When asked if the governor would sign legislation lacking these items, his press secretary Juliet Manalan declined to answer, telling the News, “the governor will review carefully all legislation that reaches his desk.”

In contrast to the gun violence working group, the mental health services group released its recommendations with little fanfare. The group passed along four proposals that received consensus: providing mental health first aid training for school employees, training pediatricians to recognize and prescribe medication for mental illness in children, offering case management services to people with severe mental illness in the court system as an alternative to hospital commitment, and creating a task force that would further investigate issues in the state’s mental health system.

Legislators said this task force would tackle some of the items on which the working group could not reach consensus, including addressing the state’s current shortage of child psychiatrists, closing gaps in private mental health coverage, and improving early intervention and treatment. Two other high-profile policy items — restricting individuals with mental illness from purchasing guns and instituting an outpatient commitment system — will likely hear much debate throughout the rest of this legislative.

“We learned quickly that there are many holes in the state’s mental health system, and we can’t really implement a lot of the programs we will likely need to shore up the gaps immediately,” said State Sen. Toni Harp, the Democratic co-chair of the mental health services working group. “Some of that will require working across silos of government and working with commercial insurers on how we can improve the mental health service delivery system in our state.”

The full bipartisan task force will meet on Wednesday to begin compiling an omnibus bill.

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