Legislature passes gun reform bill

The Connecticut House and Senate passed sweeping gun-control legislation on Monday night.
The Connecticut House and Senate passed sweeping gun-control legislation on Monday night. Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

HARTFORD – With the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School still fresh in the minds of lawmakers, the Connecticut Senate and House voted Monday night to pass one of the most sweeping gun-control packages in the nation.

Following several weeks of intense bipartisan negotiation, the Senate delivered its legislative response to the shooting with 20 of 22 Democrats and six of 14 Republicans voting in favor of the new legislation. And after over seven hours of debate, the House voted 105–44 in favor of the bill as well, sending the legislation onward to Gov. Dannel Malloy, who is expected to sign the bill into law on Thursday. The vote came 110 days after gunman Adam Lanza opened fire on 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Conn., touching off a national conversation over the constitutionality and effectiveness of gun restrictions. The debate in Connecticut, a state that has historically rested at the heart of the nation’s gun manufacturing industry, grew particularly contentious, with proponents on both sides flocking to the Capitol earlier this year for a public hearing and rally on the issue.

The final bill includes new bans on assault-style semi-automatic weapons and ammunition magazines with more than 10 bullets, a universal background check system, a gun offender registry, and a requirement of a gun permit to purchase ammunition. It also contains provisions aimed at strengthening the state’s mental health care system — particularly for residents aged 16–25 — as well as new guidelines to bolster school security.

“Keeping people safe, protecting our citizens is a core function of what we do, and that’s what we are trying to accomplish in the bill before us,” said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, who represents Newtown. “I also hope the message we can send, if those outside the walls of Connecticut are listening, is to encourage them to do the same.”

McKinney, who was wearing a green ribbon to commemorate the lives lost at Newtown, concluded his testimony on an emotional note, reading the names of the 26 people who died on that day.

“I am their voice,” he said.

In February, Democrats and Republicans on a bipartisan task force, which the Legislature established to develop policy recommendations in the wake of Newtown, released separate gun-restriction proposals. The Democrats’ plan included the assault weapons ban, while the Republicans’ did not.

The final compromise — which top Democratic and Republican lawmakers struck in a closed-door meeting on Sunday night — disappointed many gun-control advocates, as it contained a “grandfather” clause that would allow current gun owners to keep newly banned weapons and magazines as long as they are registered.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle acknowledged that the bill was an imperfect response to an extremely complicated issue. Many expressed frustration that they had not been given more time to work out details of the bill or hold a final public hearing. Still others criticized the bill for not moving far enough on mental health reform.

State Sen. Toni Harp, a Democrat who co-chaired the bipartisan task force’s mental health subgroup, said that her group ultimately decided to leave many provisions out of the current law because of their cost. She added that the bill will establish a new mental health task force, consisting of both lawmakers and outside experts, to propose more comprehensive mental health proposals.

At one point during House negotiations, state Rep. Arthur O’Neill of Southington proposed a motion to divide the bill into two, which would allow the Legislature to vote on gun restrictions separately from the mental health care and school safety portions of the bill. The motion, which failed on a vote of 95–51, would have sent the bill back to the Senate if it had passed.

State Sen. Andrew Maynard, one of two Democrats to vote “no” on the bill, said that he supported many portions of the bill but could not support provisions that would strip rights away from law-abiding gun carriers. He said that though the gun restrictions were designed to reduce crime, he feared they would ultimately do more harm than good by disarming potential victims.

“Democrats typically pride themselves on getting at the underlying solutions to major public policy issues,” Maynard said. “We don’t generally go to black-and-white solutions like more prisons, tougher sentencing, more law enforcement. We generally say, look, urban violence is created by a whole set of socioeconomic issues. In this case, we did the typical, black-and-white, sort of conservative response, which is ‘Guns are bad, there should be fewer of them, and we’re gonna make sure that happens.’”

Still, during the six-hour-long debate that preceded the vote, the Senate chamber was unusually hushed, a stark contrast to the atmosphere of heckling that colored the public hearing on this same bill. Before debate began, the presiding officer Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman instructed the Senate gallery — packed with gun-rights supporters — that “there is no booing. There is no cheering.” Largely respectful of her words, gun supporters sat on in surly silence as senator after senator stood to declare their support.

New Haven saw its fourth death by gun violence Wednesday.

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