Megan Merrigan photo
Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (Megan Merrigan photo)

Unable to conclude their conversation last week, the legislature’s gun task force invited gun manufacturers back to the Legislative Office Building for a longer conversation about gun safety and the economic impact their proposals may have on the industry.

The gun lobby, led by the National Shooting Sports Foundation is based in Newtown, told lawmakers they are in favor of beefing up the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System that retailers use before a gun is purchased.

Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said federal money already has been appropriated for states to enter the information into the FBI’s system, but only about half of the states are complying.

He suggested that the federal government make the funding contingent on how well the state is doing at entering information about protective orders or mental health history into the system. He said it should be like federal highway funds, which were contingent upon states lowering the drunk driving threshold from 0.10 to 0.08. He said states lowered the threshold because they wanted the highway dollars.

According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress began offering financial incentives — or penalties — to states to improve their participation with inputting the information into the NICS system. The incentives and penalties were implemented after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.

“States increased the number of mental health records available for use during NICS background checks from 200,000 in October 2004 to 1.2 million in October 2011, but this progress largely reflects the efforts of 12 states, and most states have made little or no progress in providing these records,” a July 2012 GAO report concluded.

It’s unclear how well Connecticut stacks up to the other states, but it’s leading the way in reporting unlawful drug use records. The GAO report found the NICS index contained a total of 3,753 unlawful non-criminal drug use records, of which about 2,200 came from Connecticut. A footnote suggests that most of them are related to fines for small amounts of marijuana. Possession of small amounts of marijuana is no longer criminal in Connecticut.

Keane also suggested that Congress provide a tax credit to gun owners who purchase any type of safety device from a trigger lock to a gun safe.

“That’s really what needs to be focused on is making firearms, whatever kind they are, inaccessible to unauthorized users,” Keane said.

The statement prompted Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, to ask Keane about why the industry isn’t investing more time in energy in “smart guns.”

A smart gun is a gun that uses biometric technology to ensure it can be fired only by its owner or other authorized user.

Keane said he can’t necessarily answer that question, but claims that the industry isn’t interested in its development are “not true.”

He said the industry is still struggling with perfecting the technology, most of which relies heavily on batteries. Then when the battery dies, does the gun default to working as a regular gun or does it default to inoperable? He said the industry hasn’t figured out an answer to that question yet.

Keane said that if they have the gun for self-protection and the gun doesn’t function during a break-in, then that’s a problem. He said it’s also a problem if the owner of the smart gun thinks they can leave the gun loaded because no one else can use it. He said traditional firearm safety dictates that the gun be stored unloaded with the ammunition kept in another location.

“That runs counter to traditional firearm safety training,” Keane said.

Looney asked whether the gun manufacturer could held liable if a smart gun was brought to market and used to accidentally shoot a minor.

Keane said there’s potential liability exposure to the manufacturer in that case.

He said New Jersey tried to adopt a law that would require smart gun technology be incorporated into all handguns sold in the state once they are widely available.

A Connecticut Office of Legislative Research report on smart guns says that 23 months after the New Jersey Attorney General finds smart guns are available for retail sale, then the attorney general must report on the number of such guns every six months.

Keane said they fought the New Jersey legislation because it means whoever is first to market with the smart gun technology will have a government-sponsored monopoly.

Keane and the gun manufacturers also tried to make an economic argument to the gun task force to think long and hard about proposals restricting access to guns.

There are about a dozen gun and ammunition manufacturers in the state who employ 2,899 Connecticut residents, according to a NSSF pamphlet.

“We recognize that this is a very emotionally charged public policy debate,” Keane said.

He appreciates that Connecticut lawmakers are being deliberative and taking their time, unlike lawmakers in New York who passed tougher gun control legislation a month after the shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut.

The legislature’s gun task force, along with the school security and mental health task force, will be looking to compile a package of legislation in response to the Newtown school shooting before the end of the month.