Two of the state’s most vocal Democrats in the ongoing discussion of gun control legislation found themselves on the other side of the issue during a similar debate in 1993 — a period during which gang violence was at its peak.
Records show that Sen. President Donald Williams, who was then a freshman state Senator, and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, then the state Representative from Tolland, both voted against Connecticut’s first assault weapons ban .
Soon after that vote, Williams changed his position and subsequently voted in favor of similar bills in 1994 and 2001.
“I wish I could tell you there was some dramatic evolution, but it was just a rookie mistake,” Williams said Friday in a phone interview.
He said it was his first legislative session and the first draft of the bill would have banned shotguns for sporting purposes. During the legislative process the bill changed to exclude shotguns, “but I felt I had already committed to vote against it,” Williams said.
The federal government would not pass an assault weapons ban until the following year, so during his speech on the floor of the state Senate in 1993 on a similar bill that failed to receive final passage, Williams said it would be “largely symbolic” to be the third state to pass the assault weapons ban.
“I do not believe that criminals, gang members, those who are interested in committing crime at the present time go into a gun store to purchase such weapons,” Williams said. “I believe that those are purchased on the Black Market and would continue to be purchased on the Black Market.”
Williams continued, “I’m troubled by the assault weapons questions, but I’m more troubled by what causes someone to commit violent crime. Ninety-five to ninety-eight percent of all gun-related crime is committed with weapons, guns that are not covered by this bill . . . Those of us who are opposed to this, because we weigh the rights of those to legally possess these weapons and we agree that it would not stop those who would commit crime from obtaining them.”
The same arguments could be made in opposition to measures that will be taken up by the legislature as soon as next month.
But Williams is firm in his resolve today, since the issue has been crystallized over the last 20 years by hundreds of thousands of gun deaths.
“Anyone who had questions about the need to take action against assault weapons in 1993 should have no questions in 2013,” Williams said last week. “The tragic headlines concerning mass killings in the years since 1993 have made it clear to me that we must take strong action. That’s why I supported strengthening our assault weapon ban in 2001, and why we must succeed in strengthening it now.”
Wyman has been at Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s side throughout the Newtown tragedy. As Lt. Governor, she could also be asked to break a tie in the Senate this year. But, like Williams 20 years ago, she voted against legislation to ban assault weapons before changing her position the following year — the same year Congress passed a national ban on assault weapons.
For her part, Wyman made no remarks on the floor of the House during the nearly 10 hour debate on the legislation in 1993 and she was at a loss to remember exactly why she would have opposed the legislation two decades ago.
“While I can’t immediately recall the specifics of what led to that particular vote nearly two decades ago, it is now painfully clear that we need to change our laws to not only address the tragedy in Sandy Hook, but to reduce the gun violence that is happening on the streets of our cities every day,” Wyman said in a statement.
It’s worth noting that Wyman faced significant electoral pressure in her rural, eastern Connecticut district, where she won her 1992 re-election bid by just 35 votes in a three-way race.
The 1993 measure passed the House 83-63 at 3:44 a.m. on June 6 and was taken up two days later by the Senate where an 18-18 vote was broken by then-Lt. Gov. Eunice Groark. The votes of every other member of the House and the Senate who are still in the legislature were not as surprising as Williams and Wyman.
There are 15 House members and six Senators who are still in the legislature two decades after that vote.
In the House, Reps. Terry Backer, Joan Hartley, Pam Sawyer, John Piscopo, Arthur O’Neill, and Larry Miller voted against the ban, while Reps. Stephen Dargan, Patricia Dillon, Robert Godfrey, Gary Lebeau, John Fonfara, Mary Mushinsky, Joe Serra, Andrea Stillman, and Lawrence Cafero voted in favor of the assault weapons ban.
In the Senate, Sens. John Kissel, Anthony Guglielmo, and Williams voted against, while Sens. Joe Crisco, Toni Harp, Martin Looney voted in favor.
U.S. Rep Joe Courtney was a state Representative at the time for the town of Vernon, and he voted in favor of the ban.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, whose party initially tried to end debate on the bill before it even began back in 1993, eventually voted in favor of the measure after several amendments. Senate Minority Leader John McKinney was not in the legislature at the time, but did vote in favor of a bill strengthening the assault weapons ban in 2001.
Attorney General George Jepsen, who was in the state Senate in 1993, said that every time there was a vote on the assault weapons ban it was close. He recalled that it passed each of the committees by one vote and proponents of the legislation got at least seven “Hail Mary’s” before it passed.
But those close votes were before the tragic massacre in Newtown.
Jepsen said that street gangs were at war in the early 1990s. During that period, drive-by shootings were common in the state’s urban areas, including in neighborhoods not far from the state Capitol.
“Mothers were making their children sleep in bathtubs because they were afraid of drive-by shootings,” Jepsen said.
He said former Bridgeport Police Chief Tom Sweeney was instrumental in convincing lawmakers that something needed to get done, but there was no galvanizing incident such as the Newtown tragedy to bring lawmakers together on the issue.
Congress allowed the federal assault weapons ban to expire in 2004.