Finally, after months of contentious debate and soul-searching, it’s done. The strongest gun control measures in the country were signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Thursday at noon. Two big questions remain: will the new laws actually make a difference, and where do we go from here?
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the law doing some good. Fewer assault weapons sold in the state will, let’s hope, mean fewer assault weapons out there. The same is true of now-banned large-capacity magazines. The first-in-the-nation deadly weapons offender registry is something urban mayors and police have been asking for, and the mental health and school safety provisions seem like a good start.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some glaring issues. People who currently own guns, ammunition, and magazines on the banned list can continue to own them. Enforcing laws against importing banned firearms and ammunition from, say, Massachusetts is going to be nearly impossible. Can the state police check every car coming over the border every day? So while some of these laws may be a great first step, and while flawed gun control is absolutely better in the long run than no gun control, I can’t actually say that we’re going to be safer because of this bill.
There are also plenty of downsides. One public defender suggested on his blog that because “the vast majority of gun defendants in Connecticut are poor, inner city minorities,” the new laws may fall most heavily on a population already struggling with disproportionate rates of imprisonment. Also, the provision requiring the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to keep information on people who voluntarily admit themselves to mental hospitals is also a little worrisome; previously this sort of information was only kept for those involuntarily committed. I worry that fear of that kind of information being on file and following one around, no matter how unfounded, might deter some people from seeking treatment.
Still, there’s a lot to like in this bill. It’s not a bad first step, not by any means. Some gun restrictions, even ones with some obvious holes, are better than none. Just because something is a half-measure doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing. Better, it sends a message about what we as a state care about: life over guns, caring over neglect. It’s a good message, and it’s an overdue pushback against the sense that trying to tighten gun laws is a hopeless cause. I don’t know if we’re going to be safer in the end, but it was still worth it.
That second, trickier question is still looming, though: What now? Where should we go from here?
Once the inevitable court battles are fought and the protests die down, Connecticut’s new laws should serve as a model for the rest of the country. Other states will follow Connecticut’s lead, and they may find ways of improving upon the compromises this bill had to make. But plenty of other states will dig in their heels, and gun control will go nowhere within their borders. If, say, Pennsylvania doesn’t follow suit, there will still be very easy ways for assault weapons and high-capacity magazines to make their way here. For gun control to be meaningful, action needs to happen in Congress.
Sadly, momentum in Washington has stalled out, thanks to wavering senators, Republican ideologues, the power of the NRA and other lobbying organizations, and the general dysfunction that reigns inside the beltway. Not even widespread public support for measures like universal background checks is enough to budge Boehner’s obstinate House or close a deal in the gridlocked Senate.
But beyond all of the legislation there’s something about ourselves and guns that we need to consider. Ours is a culture that loves violence. We put it on screens, in books, in games, and everywhere else in the entertainment world. Some of this bleeds into the real world debate. To support their cause, gun rights supporters often spin this action movie fever-dream of using a gun to protect their families from nebulous intruders, or stopping a robbery, or even of stopping a tyrannical government. We should ask ourselves, in the wake of not just Newtown but the violence that consumes our country every day, what it is we really need and love about guns. Maybe we can also ask what we’re really afraid of if they should go away.
Maybe if we do that, we can finally feel a little safer.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.