Christine Stuart photo

One hundred and ten days after a gunman murdered 20 first graders and six educators at an elementary school in Newtown, Senate Republicans and Democrats voted in favor of legislation designed to strengthen the state’s gun laws.

The bill passed the Senate after more than six hours of debate with a 26-10 vote.

The legislation approved by the Senate still needs approval from the House, which began debate at 7:30 p.m., as well as the governor’s promised signature in order to become law. However, as approved by the Senate, the bill:
—expands the state’s assault weapons ban to include 100 more firearms;
—creates a new a long gun eligibility certificate;
—broadens the mental health provisions that disqualify a person for a gun permit or handgun eligibility certificate, and;
—requires gun owners to register their high-capacity magazines while immediately halting any future sales of high-capacity magazines in the state.

In addition, the bill changes how private insurance companies handle mental health claims and creates new standards for school security.

Christine Stuart photo

As debate on the bill began, Sen. President Donald Williams said the bipartisan approach that lawmakers took in crafting the bill drew criticism from both sides.

“But we have done something fundamentally different in the state of Connecticut. The legislation that is before us is a better product for it,” Williams said.

However, the presence of hundreds of gun owners who flooded the state Capitol on Wednesday served as a stark reminder for lawmakers of exactly what the Senate was voting upon and how difficult 2nd Amendment issues are in Connecticut.

At one point, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who presides over the Senate, warned 2nd Amendment supporters in the chamber’s gallery to hold their applause when Sen. John Kissel was speaking about law-abiding gun owners. Kissel, who voted against the bill, remarked to the gallery: “Please don’t. You are not helping my argument,” he said.

Legislative leadership promised Monday to discourage amendments to the bill because of its bipartisan nature. But even during debate on the bill, party lines seemed to blur with Republican senators standing up to oppose Republican amendments to the bill they had worked to craft with Democrats.

Hugh McQuaid photo

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said she wished lawmakers were not voting on an emergency certified bill this week. Rather, she said she wished Anna Grace Marquez-Greene, one of the victims, was celebrating what would have been her seventh birthday this week.

“If only. But we can’t turn back the clock. We can only go forward. And we’ve gone forward with collaborative, innovative, groundbreaking legislation,” she said.

Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-Broad Brook, said both supporters and critics of the bill were motivated by fear — fear of another mass murder like the one that occurred in Newtown. And on the other side, they fear tyranny from a government slowly taking away their rights.

“The fear of incrementalism. The fear, not of what we’re voting on today, but of what we might vote on tomorrow. I accept what we’re voting on today as a good and balanced bill and I will vote for it,” he said.

Hugh McQuaid photo

But LeBeau said he respected the people who disagreed, including the gun supporters packed into the Senate galleries, and hoped they would continue to ensure lawmakers act in a balanced way.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle opposed the measure as well. Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said she felt the bill only served to give people a false sense of security.

“Adam Lanza was the one who killed those 20 children and six adults. He’s the one we should hold accountable today, not the legal gun owners of this state,” she said.

Lanza took his own life with a handgun after firing 154 rounds from his Bushmaster rifle.

Osten, a liberal lawmaker who comes from a rural district, said the lawmakers could have waited to vote on the bill to give the public a chance to testify on the specific legislation. Several Republicans expressed similar concerns.

She was one of two Democrats to vote against the measure. The other, Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, said he understands the desire to do something but the bipartisan nature of the bill presented some challenges.

“In the end it was a gut-check for me,” Maynard said. “I just didn’t feel that the efforts on the gun portion of the bill would have a meaningful effect on preventing a similar mass shooting.”

Maynard, who said he doesn’t own a gun, described the bill as the “toughest” of his legislative career. He said there’s a lot in the bill he just has “misgivings about.” He also wasn’t pleased with the process. He only received the final draft of the bill Wednesday morning.

Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, said legislators did not have adequate time to review the bill because they only received a copy of the final language Wednesday morning. He said it wouldn’t have hurt anyone if they took a few days to analyze the bill before voting.

But process concerns aside, Markley was in the camp of lawmakers who did not believe more firearm restrictions would serve to protect the public.

“Guns are deadly things and the way you control them is holding the people that possess them responsible. Putting the effort into demonizing the weapons themselves is not constructive. Putting restrictions on law-abiding gun owners is neither useful or fair,” he said. He likened new gun restrictions to the prohibition of alcohol, and said policymakers of that era found that it simply wasn’t possible to ban booze.

But Dec. 14 changed a lot of people’s viewpoints. Said Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury: “Under different circumstances I would look at this bill very differently.” 

The conservative Republican said the tragedy in Newtown really forced him to change his views.

“I am supporting this bill in hopes that I am properly honoring Caroline Phoebe Previdi,” McLachlan said. Previdi was the daughter of a family friend and one of the 20 children killed that day.

He said he has spoken with legal scholars who believe the bill will withstand a legal challenge because it grandfathers the possession of high-capacity magazines.

“I’m thankful the bill before us today does have a grandfather clause and allows gun owners to keep the property they’ve bought and paid for,” he said.