Legislative leaders announced the creation of a bipartisan committee Tuesday tasked with drafting legislation to prevent gun violence and keep children safe in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle held a press conference Tuesday morning in the Legislative Office Building to announce the new committee.
The committee, which is scheduled to conduct an organizational meeting Friday, will consist of top Democrats and Republicans from a handful of standing committees and is expected act on proposals by the end of February.
Senate President Don Williams said the task force will move quickly to act on issues related to guns, mental health resources, and school security where there is consensus among members of both parties.
“We stand here before you today in a bipartisan effort to combat the culture of violence,” Williams said.
While gun control tends to be the most contentious and attention grabbing issue on the table, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said it will be important for the task force to take a holistic approach in responding to the shootings.
“We would be remiss if we as a legislature do not adopt and consider serious and significant mental health reforms in this state as well as reforms that can help maintain the safety of our schools,” he said.
The task force will have three sub committees to develop proposals relating to those issues.
Senate Republican leader John McKinney, who represents Newtown, said the families of the victims want to see the legislature address the shooting in a bipartisan manner.
“What they asked yesterday is that we do two things — we have those conversations above the level of partisanship and acrimony and politics because this is a conversation that goes beyond all of that,” he said, adding that the families also want to see the legislature take action.
House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero agreed, saying constituents expect their elected leaders to represent them, not their political party.
“Today is the beginning of that process, a process where we are determined together, Republicans and Democrats, to address the issues of gun safety, of school safety, and mental health,” he said.
Williams said the new task force will work in concert with a similar group convened by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. The governor’s task force is not expected to make recommendations until March 15.
Betty Gallo, a lobbyist for Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said Connecticut has to act and it has to act quickly. She acknowledged that there is a large amount of pressure on state lawmakers, but she expressed confidence that Connecticut would pass the most comprehensive laws in the nation.
“Whatever Connecticut passes will get exported to other states to use as an example,” she said.
A group calling itself March for Change will gather at the state Capitol on February 14 to demand changes to the state’s gun laws and to advocate a bipartisan “common sense” approach.
But anti-gun advocates aren’t the only ones who will march on the state Capitol.
A Texas-based gun rights organization will organize marches to Connecticut’s state Capitol this Saturday in an effort to protect law abiding gun owners from some of the proposals being made by lawmakers.
The New York state senate already reached a deal Monday on tougher gun control measures, making it the first legislative body to take action after the Newtown shooting. Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, previously served as an assemblyman in New York. He said it was embarrassing for him as a Connecticut lawmaker to watch his former colleagues act so quickly in response to something that happened in Connecticut.
But legislative leadership doesn’t necessarily agree with Meyer.
“I think taking quick action is important, but taking smart action is more important,” Sharkey said. “We haven’t even had a chance to digest what is being proposed and passed in New York state, but I think we owe it to the public to be careful in what we do.”
He warned that “sometimes when you act too quickly you make mistakes.”
In addition to gun control and the dozens of proposals being submitted by individual lawmakers, there will be an effort by lawmakers to address the mental health care system in the state even though there’s no hard evidence to say the Newtown gunman suffered from mental illness. The state police investigation of the mass shooting is still ongoing, but lawmakers seemed confident Tuesday that mental health needed to be addressed either way.
“Often mental health issues do become a component of violent acts,” Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney said.
He said the state does know that more than 20 percent of the people in its prisons have moderate to severe mental health problems. “That’s an ongoing problem and I think that’s part of our charge,” Looney said.
Sharkey said he thinks Gov. Dannel P. Malloy put his finger on it when he spoke last week about how mental health in our society is often stigmatized.
Those who need help are “often times unable or unwilling in some cases to access the care that’s necessary,” Sharkey said. “We have yet to know what the circumstances were behind the person who perpetrated the crime in Newtown, but I would hate to think that a family of means would have not accessed mental health services if that person was concerned with the stigma attached to it.”
Details about the gunman are still unknown, but some news reports suggested the gunman’s mother had been struggling with his behavior.
Gallo, who also lobbies for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, warned lawmakers from jumping to the conclusion that everyone with a mental illness is prone to violence. She said 1 in every 10 Americans will experience some type of mental health issue at some point in their life.
The task force will include the Democratic chairs and Republican ranking members of the Judiciary, Public Safety, Education, Higher Education, Public Health, Human Services, Appropriations, and Finance Committees.