UP CLOSE | Legislating in the wake of tragedy

The March for Change rally in February drew a crowd that police estimated at 5,500 in front of the State Capitol in Hartford.
The March for Change rally in February drew a crowd that police estimated at 5,500 in front of the State Capitol in Hartford. Photo by Emma Goldberg.

At approximately 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2012, dispatchers at the Newtown police station started to receive a frantic flurry of phone calls about a disturbance at a local elementary school.

“Sandy Hook School. Caller is indicating she thinks someone is shooting in the building,” one dispatcher told officers, according to 911 tapes.

Less than 20 minutes later, officers arrived at the school, ready to apprehend a gunman. But the scene was eerily quiet. Inside, 20-year-old Newtown resident Adam Lanza had shot himself as he heard law enforcement approaching. He had just killed 20 first-grade children and six educators with a Bushmaster assault-style semiautomatic rifle in the second deadliest school shooting in American history.

Soon after, a stunned public began a national conversation about the need to prevent gun violence and improve mental healthcare. There was a sense that Lanza had somehow slipped through the cracks of the system, and activists wondered aloud whether, had those cracks been filled, the events of Newtown would have ever transpired.

That is certainly the mindset Connecticut lawmakers adopted when, in early January, they bypassed the normal committee process to move a bill in response to the shooting through the legislature as quickly as possible. State legislators established the Bipartisan Taskforce on Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety, made up of three subcommittees on gun violence, mental health services and school security. For the next three months, each group worked separately on their respective sets of proposals, which were debated by top Democratic and Republican lawmakers and ultimately combined into an all-encompassing, omnibus bill.

Legislative leaders, particularly Connecticut House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, insisted on a bipartisan effort from the beginning, appointing a Democrat and a Republican to co-chair each committee.

“If not Connecticut, where else would a bipartisan agreement be reached?” Sharkey said.

The law passed with unusual bipartisan support in early April, later than lawmakers had hoped but still two months ahead of the end of this year’s legislative session. The legislation, which contains an expanded ban on assault weapons and a limit on the size of ammunition magazines, among other provisions, makes the state a national leader in the fight for tighter gun control measures.

While top lawmakers and activists from both sides of the aisle have lauded the legislation as a wide-ranging package of improvements, it remains to be seen whether the new law will be strong enough to prevent another tragedy like Newtown or achieve the broader reform that advocates sought. Underscoring this effort is another, more fundamental question: Is it possible to prevent a tragedy?

 

GRASSROOTS PRESSURE

As soon as Nancy Lefkowitz heard that there had been an elementary school shooting just 45 minutes away from her home, she knew she had to act. So she took to Facebook, inviting her friends and acquaintances to a meeting to discuss the possibility of real change in the state’s gun laws.

Less than two months later on Feb. 14, Lefkowitz’ organization, which became the March for Change, drew a riled-up Gov. Dannel Malloy, top state lawmakers and a rambunctious crowd of 5,500 supporters wearing commemorative green ribbons to the steps of the State Capitol building. One by one, family members of those who had died at Newtown and in other acts of gun violence made tearful pleas to lawmakers to change the state’s gun laws, so that their loved ones would not have died in vain.

“Because of that grassroots pressure, the laws changed in Connecticut,” Lefkowitz said.

Following the last major mass shooting, at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., the national conversation around strengthening gun restrictions was tepid at best. Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent ’13, a Yale student who was present in the Aurora theater, said that people used the tragedy as a springboard for discussion on potential gun-free zones and an expanded right to carry arms, instead of moving in the direction of stronger gun control, as some may have hoped.

Newtown changed that.

“Obviously, you can’t make that argument when someone is shooting at a bunch of children,” he said. “As a country, we feel a more collective responsibility for children. We use the term ‘our children’ whenever something happens to a child, even when it’s not our child.”

Whereas passing universal background checks would have been viewed as a huge success mere weeks earlier, gun control advocates suddenly felt they had the momentum to push for big-ticket reforms, Rodriguez-Torrent said.

One of the state’s most fervent advocates for increased gun control was its governor. Over protests that it was “too soon” to discuss politics following a tragedy, Malloy called for the state legislature to tighten an existing assault weapons ban and criticized Congress for allowing the 1994 federal ban to expire.

In January, he set up his own Sandy Hook Advisory Commission to work concurrently with the legislature. When the Legislature’s gun violence committee appeared to stall in its deliberations, Malloy stepped forward with his own proposals, an openly aggressive move that caused many from both parties to criticize him of overreaching his office.

Several weeks after the final legislation was passed — legislation that looked largely similar to the provisions he had outlined — Malloy told the News that his pressure on the legislature had succeeded.

“The talks had stalled,” he said. “I think [my recommendations] focused people’s attention on what needed to happen and why.”

Other than a retroactive ban on newly-restricted weapons and ammunition, every one of Malloy’s recommendations found their way into the final law passed in April.

 

PREDICTING MASS MURDER

While some gun control advocates may argue that mass public shootings are on the rise — the United States saw seven in 2012, the highest number since 1999 — experts stressed that the number of mass public shootings has stayed steady since the early 1900s.

More important to policymakers in the wake of Newtown, though, are signals that may notify authorities of shootings before they happen. Experts admit that there are few reliable predictors of mass murder, as the number of school shootings is so small that they are nearly impossible to generalize. But in studying the small number of school shooting incidents, some patterns do emerge.

In 2002, the U.S. Secret Service published a well-renowned analysis of 37 school shootings between 1974 and 2000. Overwhelmingly, perpetrators were white males between the ages of 13 to 18. In over two-thirds of these cases, researchers found that gunmen had extensive firearms experience, and nearly the same number acquired their weapons from their or relatives’ homes.

Moreover, 71 percent of school shooters reported being bullied or threatened at school, and 78 percent thought about or attempted to commit suicide. Some 98 percent of school shooters experienced a major personal trauma, such as the loss of a loved one or the end of a romantic relationship. Still, only 34 percent of school shooters during this period ever received a mental health evaluation.

Grant Duwe, author of “Mass Murder in the United States: a History,” said that had these young men been tested, a majority would have likely been found to be afflicted by some sort of mental illness — making the recent effort to expand the availability of mental health coverage “money well-spent.”

“Of course, this doesn’t mean that someone who had a serious mental illness is going to commit one of these types of crimes — but it’s a risk factor we need to take into account,” Duwe said.

Critical to prevention efforts, more than two-thirds of shooters confided in others about their plans before carrying them out. According to Louis Schlesinger, a forensic psychiatrist at John Jay College for Criminal Justice, this last warning sign is one of the only signals that has been used to avert a shooting successfully. Still, a proposal that would have required schools to create a confidential reporting system for students did not receive enough support from lawmakers on the school safety committee to make it into the final law.

“The only way to know [when a shooting might occur] is if [the gunman] told someone — if he was thinking, planning, fantasizing,” Schlesinger said. “How are you going to do it otherwise? He looks weird? He doesn’t have friends? No. None of that is predictive of mass murder.”

 

‘THE VALUE OF EARLY INTERVENTION’

When investigators searched Lanza’s home in the days after the shooting, they uncovered several books that offered a glimpse at the troubles that plagued the gunman. Two were entitled  “Look me in the eye — My life with Asperger’s” and “Born on a blue day — Inside the mind of an Autistic Savant.”

Though law enforcement officials have offered no official diagnosis for Lanza, these books, alongside numerous interviews with friends and family, have led many to speculate that the young man struggled with some form of mental illness. Numerous reports also suggest that Lanza was severely bullied in school, contributing to this notion.

The mental health services committee knew little of Lanza’s mental health when it began its work in January, and so it set out to plug basic holes in the state’s current healthcare delivery system. The committee established a mental health first aid program, aimed at training teachers, nurses and other professionals, to recognize and deal with early signs of mental illness, funded two different service programs for psychiatric patients leaving the hospital and created a system to connect pediatricians with child psychiatrists.

Christine Limone, the political director of Connecticut’s chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said that she was pleased with the components of the mental health legislation. Even if the specific provisions of the law were not tailored to Lanza’s perceived mental health problems, she said, the bill certainly passed because of them.

“It’s my opinion that the whole legislative session would have been about closing the deficit and looking to make some tough decisions to cut mental health services and do more with less,” she said. “It’s sad that it takes a tragedy to recognize the value of early intervention.”

Indeed, Malloy proposed to cut $21 million from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ budget in his biennial budget proposal released in early February. The Appropriations Committee, which released its legislative budget proposal on Friday, shrunk that number to $5 million.

The cuts come amid larger questions of funding, with state closure of psychiatric hospitals reducing the number of psychiatric beds available from 2,000 to 400. The decreased availability has led to longer wait times, as the average length of time a person must wait before receiving state psychiatric care has risen to two years, said Howard Zonana, the director of the Psychiatry and Law Division at Yale Medical School.

These facts frighten mental health advocates, who say that many existing behavioral services cannot operate without state grants. If lawmakers cut mental health funding, it is unclear whether they will appropriate the additional funds necessary to sustain the programs created under the new law.

“Some of the things that were in the bill will require additional funding,” said Kate Mattias, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Connecticut. “We don’t want money to come from existing programs – it will need to be new dollars.”

Some mental health advocates in Hartford have taken issue with one provision of the law, which states that any individual who voluntarily signs into a psychiatric hospital is prohibited from purchasing a gun for six months, and that those who are involuntarily committed cannot own a gun for five years.

Mattias said that this provision may lead many patients not to seek care for fear that their rights would be restricted as a result.

Still others took issue with the legislation because they said it does not go nearly far enough. Boucher, who chaired the school security committee, called the mental health services portion of the law “the weakest of all.” She said that the law’s provisions do not focus on individuals who do not or cannot comply with mental health regimens, the constituency that needs the most help.

“My constituents say they are afraid to be in their own homes with family members who are seriously mentally ill,” she said. “They live with people who they love, but who, if they aren’t taking their medication, could turn around and kill them. That’s reality.”

Committee co-chair Sen. Toni Harp, a Democrat, does not deny that the mental health provisions her committee crafted will make a small impact, at best. But she added that, in cases like Lanza’s, an early intervention — perhaps by a teacher or doctor — might have made the difference.

 

SAFER SCHOOLS

Though Sandy Hook Elementary school had installed a new security system that locked all entrances to the school at 9:30 a.m. each morning, investigators found that Lanza bypassed such security by using an assault rifle to shoot open one of the school’s entrances. As a result, of the three major portions of the final law, perhaps the most direct response to the Newtown tragedy was to attempt to fortify schools against future mass shooters.

The school safety subcommittee was the first of the three to deliver its recommendations with bipartisan support, perhaps due to the relatively uncontroversial topic at hand. Its most significant provision requires school districts to conduct biennial security assessments and develop individualized emergency plans.

The committee also recommended enhanced school security infrastructure standards, including installing solid-core doors, bullet-proof glass and electronic locks — though it fell short of requiring these standards of all schools, unless the school should choose to renovate on its own. Rather, it created a $15 million competitive grant program that would partially reimburse schools that choose to implement the new building regulations.

The committee’s recommendations lacked some of the more controversial solutions that cropped up in the weeks following Newtown, including the National Rifle Association’s proposal to arm teachers against potential threats. The NRA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“Some people would say we didn’t go far enough. Some people said, why didn’t you require more police officers on site?” said Republican Sen. Toni Boucher, a co-chair of the school security committee. “Other people were very concerned about mandating costs that they could not afford. I think ours was a balanced approach.”

Still, the committee’s swiftness belies the nuance with which it looked into each issue, according to several legislators involved in the effort. According to Speaker of the House Sharkey, one person on the committee requested that all doors have outer locks so that children could hide there during a shooting. But that same lock might have enabled a bully to hide his or her victim inside — a much more likely occurrence, Sharkey explained. One danger in beefing up a school’s security apparatus, Boucher added, is the potential of disrupting the school’s climate.

“You have to balance the school climate not to create a threatening, prison-like environment,” Boucher said. “You want a nurturing and positive environment while still having protections that people can’t see.”

Other mass shooting experts criticized the committee for focusing on school buildings so specifically. In a 1989 school shooting in Cleveland, a gunman opened fire on an outdoor playground, killing five elementary school children and wounding 29 others.

“It’s a very simplistic idea, that if we lock the school door or if we put a resource officer at the entrance, we’ll prevent a mass killing,” said Jack Levin, a sociologist at Northeastern University and the author of several books on mass shootings. “If you can’t get into the school, you can get into the teen center down the street, the skating rink, the swimming pool, the local cinema.”

Malloy acknowledged that the law does little to protect children outside the confines of the school building. But fortifying schools, he said, was an important first step.

 

STRICTER GUN LAWS

Perhaps the most widely reported facts about Lanza pertained to the stockpile of weapons found in his home. Beside the three weapons he brought with him to Sandy Hook Elementary, investigators found a wide array of firearms, as well as more than 1,600 rounds of ammunition, 11 knives, a bayonet and three samurai swords. They also found an NRA certificate awarded to Lanza, an NRA manual on the basics of pistol shooting and a Christmas card from his mother with a check intended to buy a new gun.

Though members of the gun violence committee did not know these details when they began their work, it was clear from initial reports that Lanza enjoyed ready access to guns he should not have, and the committee saw to it that no one else would.

Unlike the school safety and mental health services committees, though, the gun violence committee could not agree on which provisions were appropriate, ultimately releasing separate Democratic and Republican proposals. Both parties in the committee agreed on a majority of proposed items, including raising the minimum age to own a gun from 18 to 21, mandating universal background checks, requiring gun permits to purchase ammunition, limiting the number of guns a permit holder can buy per 30-day period, creating a gun offender registry and strengthening the regulation of straw purchases — the process by which a permit-holder purchases a gun for a person not authorized to own one.

The Democrats’ most prominent proposals — to tighten the ban on assault-style semiautomatic weapons and limit the size of ammunition magazines — were absent from the Republicans’ proposal. But in a testament to the Democrats’ power in the state legislature, both proposals were included in the final law.

Despite his and other legislators’ intentions, experts say that an assault weapons ban and other gun control measures will likely have little impact on future mass shooters. The majority of mass shooters do not even use assault rifles as defined by Connecticut ban, according to Levin.

Assault weapons are categorized in law enforcement by cosmetic features on the weapon, such as a thumbhole or a pistol grip, that assist the shooter in aiming or minimizing kickback. But a basic semiautomatic weapon, without additional cosmetic features, is still legal in the state of Connecticut — and tends to be the weapon of choice for mass shooters.

Moreover, Duwe’s research indicates that previously enforced assault weapons bans, background checks and limits on the size of magazines have had little impact on the frequency of mass public shootings. When he examined the effect of loosening gun laws, he found that looser restrictions had little impact, either.

“These new laws are certainly not going to hurt anything,” he said. “But we need to be realistic about what impact they will have or not have on the incidence of mass public shootings.”

A sizable minority of Connecticut’s residents oppose the new measures because they believe the restrictions create unnecessary impediments for law-abiding citizens, such as being subjected to an arduous background check or limiting the types of weapons they can use for sport.

Rich Burgess, the president of Connecticut Carry, noted that shooters will likely be able to circumvent such restrictions.

“There is no stopping someone who is hell-bent on killing his mother and children. There’s nothing stopping him from making a bomb or starting a fire,” Burgess said. “These things happened long before a particular style of rifles were ever invented.”

Rep. Craig Miner, the Republican co-chair of the gun violence committee, largely agreed with this assessment. He said that, though it was likely impossible to create a legislative barrier against any future tragedies from occurring, his committee had taken on a broader intention. Though 26 people had perished in Newtown, hundreds of others lost their lives across the state that year in smaller one-on-one killings.

“I have a bit of a hard time as a legislator thinking about all of this separately from what goes on, on a more regular basis in some of our larger, more urban areas,” Miner said. “We can’t forget that for many, many years, some of this violence has been going on, not in mass shootings, but in regular shootings.”

The gun control package’s most effective provision, then, will likely not be its expanded assault weapons ban but rather the system of background checks it puts in place or the increased penalty it demands for straw purchasers. These are the types of legislation, experts and lawmakers say, which do make a sizable impact on urban street violence.

“People say that politicians are using Sandy Hook to push forward their own agenda. I say, absolutely, yes!” said State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, who represents New Haven. “I’m more than happy to be accused of taking advantage of this opportunity — because if I didn’t, it would be a waste.”

 

‘TAKING ADVANTAGE’

Four months after the events of Newtown, the conversation surrounding gun violence, mental health and school safety is as alive as ever. After the passage of the Sandy Hook Legislation — officially titled “An Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety” — Connecticut is just beginning to parse out the logistics of enforcing its new law. Even as the legislature moves onto other matters, Malloy’s Sandy Hook Commission continues to meet, preparing more robust mental health and school security initiatives to hand to next year’s legislature.

The law falls short of restricting the weapons used in the most common types of violence or providing the broad overhaul of the state’s mental health system that some would like. Thus, while they may celebrate its passage, virtually all of those involved in the bill acknowledged it will likely not be enough to stop the next Adam Lanza.

Yet despite continuing concerns about the effectiveness of the legislation, Connecticut has set a clear national example, showing that Democrats and Republicans can negotiate contentious issues with little political fanfare.

Sharkey, the architect of the bipartisan taskforce, said that bringing both parties to the table made for an ultimately stronger bill.

“If we tried to do what some were proposing — a strictly Democratic partisan bill — we may not have even had the numbers to get that passed,” Sharkey said. “We might have had to water it down just to get all Democrats to pass it. So by trying to maintain the bipartisan approach, we got a better bill and got more votes.”

To be sure, the effects of Newtown fell short of Washington last week, when the U.S. Senate voted down a measure that would have established a nation-wide universal background check system, the provision thought by many to be the one that could overcome the gun lobby so present in the chamber.

Still, a delegation of Newtown families that was present in Washington for the vote vowed to keep working on behalf of the family members they lost on Dec. 14.

“Our hearts are broken,” said Mark Barden, the father of one of the first graders who lost his life in Newtown, repeating the movement’s refrain. “But our spirit is not.”

 

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