The six legislative leaders responsible for fashioning a response to the Newtown shooting emerged Wednesday from their first meeting optimistic that they will have a bill that the General Assembly can vote on in the next week or two.
The private two-hour meeting was the first between the bipartisan leaders since the three subcommittees forwarded their recommendations on public policy changes in the areas of gun control, school safety, and mental health. Two more meetings are scheduled later this week, but if the gun control subcommittee’s divided report was any indication, both sides may still be far apart on expanding the assault weapons ban to include semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines.
Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, who did not vote in favor of the assault weapons ban in 1993 when he was a freshman lawmaker, has been vocal about his desire to see the definition of assault weapon expanded to include semi-automatic rifles.
Asked early Wednesday if he anticipated any legislation that didn’t include the two items in question, Williams said “those are critical building blocks. They’re the basics for what we need to do in response to the Newtown tragedy.”
Williams’ position was buoyed Wednesday when a Quinnipiac University poll found 68 percent of the 1,009 voters surveyed support an expansion of the assault weapons ban. However, the 27 percent of gun owners included in that poll opposed an expansion of the assault weapon ban 49 to 44 percent.
While standing with the other legislative leaders after the private meeting, Williams said he stood by his earlier remarks, but declined to say whether it was essential for the final draft of the bill to include those two items.
“We’re going to take it one day at a time and keep talking,” Williams said. “The message, as far as I’m concerned, is we’re seeing some areas of agreement and that’s a positive thing.”
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said he’s optimistic they’ll be able to reach a conclusion at “an appropriate time.”
Fifty-four percent of voters surveyed by Quinnipiac University said they were not optimistic the legislature will be able to reach a bipartisan consensus on gun control and 33 percent felt Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was moving too quickly, while 17 percent said he’s not moving fast enough.
Quinnipiac Poll Director Doug Schwartz said Wednesday that he thinks Democrats have the “upper hand” and that the public is “clearly on the side for gun control measures.”
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said the meeting Wednesday was productive and he believes all the leaders are working toward the same goal, “which is a bipartisan comprehensive, effective agreement.”
Cafero is one of about two dozen lawmakers who were in the General Assembly 20 years ago when it passed the state’s first assault weapons ban. After a lengthy debate, Cafero eventually voted in favor of the ban after his party initially tried to end debate on the bill before it even began. Senate Minority Leader John McKinney was not in the legislature at the time, but he did vote in favor of a bill strengthening the assault weapons ban in 2001.
The Republican recommendations submitted to legislative leaders Tuesday include items such as increasing the age for owning a long gun from 18 to 21, universal background checks, and requiring eligibility certificates and completion of a firearms safety course for purchases of any long gun. The Republicans also recommended increasing the requirements for ammunition purchases and would prohibit anyone who doesn’t possess a firearm from purchasing ammunition or magazines.
The Democrats were able to find a lot of agreement with the Republicans on the above recommendations, but they were the only ones to call for expansion of the state’s assault weapons ban and a ban on high capacity magazines.
Democrats control a majority in the General Assembly.