The legislature sent its bipartisan response to the Sandy Hook tragedy to the governor’s desk Thursday morning, enacting strict gun-control legislation and closing the book on months of emotional debate.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he would sign the legislation, which supporters say addresses the issues of gun violence, mental health, and school security even if it wouldn’t necessarily have prevented the second-worst shooting in the nation’s history.
The legislation would ban future sales of 100 more firearm models, including the Bushmaster rifle model the gunman used in Newtown. It also would ban high-capacity magazines, but would allow individuals to keep the ones they already own as long as they register each one. The decision to grandfather existing magazines that carry more than 10 rounds was part of the compromise legislative leaders struck during several weeks of closed-door negotiations. In addition, the bill changes how private insurance companies handle mental health claims — speeding the process — and creates new standards for school security.
Rep. DebraLee Hovey, a Republican whose district represents a part of Newtown, said she hopes passage of the legislation will bring peace to the community as it struggles to heal from the horrific events of Dec. 14. Hovey drew attention to herself in the week following the shooting by reportedly emailing her fellow lawmakers to suggest that they wait before making any decisions about gun legislation. She later apologized after a separate incident in which she posted a message on her Facebook page suggesting that former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was critically injured by gunfire in mass shooting in Arizona, should “stay out of my towns.”
Despite those incidents, Hovey voted in favor of the legislation. She said people in Newtown still have “strong opinions on guns,” but passage of the legislation puts the issue to rest. “I think the community needs some calm and peace,” said Hovey, who added that she doesn’t necessarily agree with everything in the gun portion of the bill.
Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, voted in favor of the bill after saying she was troubled by the mental health aspects of the legislation. She said she didn’t believe the measure was strong enough in that area to help people like the Sandy Hook mother Jennifer Maksel.
During a public hearing in January, Maksel pleaded with lawmakers to help her with her son who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and a host of other conditions.
“My pro-2nd amendment guys . . . they can deal with it,” a teary-eyed Kupchick said, but she added that she was concerned that the mental health part of the bill didn’t go far enough and may not help someone facing circumstances similar to those faced by the mother of the gunman.
As the debate continued, the large crowds present earlier in the day to defend their gun rights dissipated and memories of that day in Newtown emerged.
Rep. John Frey, R-Ridgefield, got emotional as he recounted the story about the five first graders his sister saw running up the street as they fled from the gunman who had just killed their teacher and classmates.
“I’ve tried to separate emotion from fact and I think I do a pretty good job of that,” Frey said. “I think I’ve been endorsed NRA everytime I run for office. I certainly believe in 2nd Amendment rights.”
But Frey said he can’t get the image of the 11 students — the five his sister brought to the police station and the six who found refuge at a nearby home — out of his head.
“So I think while this bill could be better, it could have been a whole lot worse,” Frey said.
How people view firearms and their role in society also was discussed during debate in the House. Some members said the industry has gotten away from guns for sport shooting and has instead begun marketing assault-style weapons to children and women. Late Wednesday, state Rep. David Alexander, a freshman Democrat from Enfield, offered his perspective as a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps. He said Marines don’t use 30-round magazines for its pistols, and neither should civilians. He said he was shocked to hear that the shooter in Arizona had access to 30-round magazines for his pistols and felt that they should be banned from civilian use.
Alexander also said that the Marine Corps closely monitors the use of ammunition — every bullet is accounted for — and suggested that background checks for consumer ammunition purchases are appropriate.
But some urban lawmakers said they didn’t believe the legislation was strong enough.
Rep. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, said he couldn’t support the bill because it did not do enough to prevent gun violence in the inner cities.
“Don’t think that I’m against what’s in this bill, because what’s in this bill is good. But it doesn’t go far enough,” he said.
McCrory, who had just attended the funeral of a man gunned down in Hartford last week, said he hoped lawmakers would pass something later in the session that would address urban gun violence. But he said he doubted there would be any more firearm legislation during the remaining two months of the session because it is “too controversial.”
“We might do something later, where we get to the core things that I’ve talked about, but tonight I can’t support it. But you guys do what you want. I appreciate your time,” he said.
As debate on the bill began Wednesday in the Senate, lawmakers praised the bipartisan process that led to the legislation. Leaders from both parties met for weeks to negotiate a bill that members of both parties could support.
“We have done something fundamentally different in the state of Connecticut. The legislation that is before us is a better product for it,” Sen. President Donald Williams said.
But even in Connecticut, gun control is an emotional issue.
While senators of both parties began meeting ahead of the floor debate, the halls of the state Capitol filled with gun rights supporters. Standing outside the Senate chamber, they shouted slogans like “Just Say No!” and they confronted anyone who looked like they could be a lawmaker.
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 after Sen. John Kissel, a Republican from Enfield, announced that he would be opposing the bill. Kissel, trying to finish his remarks, urged the people in the gallery to stop: “Please don’t. You are not helping my argument,” he said.
The sensitive nature of gun control was evident in the House as well, where at the beginning of the debate Republicans invoked a rarely-used legislative rule in an effort to separate the gun provisions of the bill from the rest of the legislation. The motion would have allowed them to vote for most of the bill, while rejecting stricter firearm regulations.
“There are members who would like to vote against [the gun control provisions] and then vote for the rest of the bill if they had that option,” Rep. Arthur O’Neill said as he proposed the motion.
But Democrats used their solid majority to reject the division in a straight party-line vote. House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz said that the bill had enough diverse provisions to divide into parts, but that division would be a disservice to the process that went into crafting it.
“It wouldn’t do the amount of work justice, that went in over the past two months by leaders of different parties and different bodies in a bipartisan way,” he said.
That process also was criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Several said they felt legislative leaders were rushing, after months of careful deliberation, by asking members to vote on a bill that had only been finalized that morning.
“Here we have a process that began back in January. Three months we’ve been working on this,” Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, said. “What would be lost by waiting two more days till people have a chance to see what’s in the bill, see what might be missing, then touch base?”
Process concerns aside, many legislators were divided on whether the stricter gun regulations included in the bill would help to make the public safer or merely punish the state’s gun owners.
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, voted against the bill, saying it would only give residents 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.
But the events of Dec. 14 changed the viewpoints of many lawmakers. Sen. Michael McLachlan, a conservative Republican from Danbury, said he would have looked at the bill “very differently” under other circumstances. But he voted for the legislation hoping to honor the memory of Caroline Phoebe Previdi, the daugher of a family friend and one of the 20 children killed that day.
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.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, who represents Newtown, read the names of all the victims as he wrapped up the Senate debate for Republicans.
“I stand here as their voice, as their elected representatives, and the 20 children we’ve lost. So today in making this vote, I want to be the voice for Charlotte Bacon and Daniel Barden and Olivia Engel,” he said as he began to list the names.
By 10:30 p.m., as the House debate continued, the hundreds of 2nd Amendment advocates had largely vacated the Capitol. Around 30 people sat in the gallery above the hall of the House, a majority of whom were gun control supporters.