Contributed photo
Bridgeport Police Officer Riccardo Lopez (Contributed photo)

Bridgeport officials and police officers are imploring legislators to act before the end of the legislative session on a bill allowing law enforcement to ask a person to see their permit to carry a firearm, regardless of whether the individual was suspected of criminal activity.

Mayor Joe Ganim — at a press conference Wednesday morning with Bridgeport police officers, Police Chief AJ Perez, Sen. Ed Gomes, D-Bridgeport, and Rep. Steve Stafstrom — asked for passage of H.B. 5408, “An Act Concerning the Presentation of a Carry Permit.”

The bill passed by a vote of 16-9 out of the Public Safety Committee and now awaits action by the House of Representatives, but time is running out. The 2016 legislative session ends at midnight Wednesday, May 4.

“No one is questioning anyone’s constitutionally protected right to bear arms, but we also have a high degree of gun violence in communities like Bridgeport, so we want to protect the public and make the already dangerous job of being a police officer clearer,” Ganim said.

Under the current law, officers can’t ask a person to see their permit if they don’t see the weapon and the person is not committing a crime.

Law enforcement officers throughout Connecticut have called for the bill after a video surfaced in January in which an individual was openly carrying a pistol in a downtown Bridgeport Subway franchise.

When Bridgeport police officers — responding to a call for suspicious activity by an armed person — asked to see the man’s permit, the individual challenged the officers’ right to demand he show his permit, and the individual was let go.

The video pointed out ambiguities in state gun laws surrounding open carry of firearms, since under existing law a police officer can only ask to see a firearms permit if the officer has reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed.

“If you are openly carrying a firearm, you are already required to carry your pistol permit on your person,” Ganim said. “All this bill does is require you to produce that permit if asked by law enforcement officers . . . We have so many illegal guns on the streets of our community that unfortunately we can no longer assume someone carrying a gun in public is doing so legally. Our officers put their lives on the line every day to protect us. This is the least we can do to help them. I urge our General Assembly to pass this bill before the session ends next week.”

Bridgeport Police Chief Perez said they support the Second Amendment, and all they want to do is safeguard the people.

“It is not unreasonable, if I see someone openly carrying a firearm on the street, for a police officer to ask, ‘do you have a permit for that, sir?’ and if they do, ‘can I see it?’,” Perez said. “There is absolutely nothing unreasonable about that. It not only safeguards the public, but also the person carrying the firearm, and the police officer. That’s why we all support this legislation.”

Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said the legislation strikes the right balance between protecting the public while considering the rights of the individual carrying the gun. He said he believes it would withstand a constitutional challenge.

But during public hearing testimony on the bill, the National Rifle Association and the Connecticut Citizens Defense League said asking a gun owner to see their permit is a violation of their rights.

Christopher Kopacki, Connecticut liaison to the NRA, said the bill violates the U.S. Constitution by failing to protect people from the threat of unreasonable search and seizure.

“Stopping, detaining, or frisking a person is a seizure,” Kopacki said. “No matter how brief.”

He said there’s no evidence the law would make Connecticut residents safer. He said the relationship between police and the community is already strained, especially in urban areas, and this bill “would have dangerous consequences” that would further separate police from the community.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Bridgeport Police Officer Ricardo Lopez, who was filmed in the viral video confrontation in January and serves as vice president of AFSCME Local 1159 Bridgeport Police Officers’ Union, said, “This is not about taking rights away. We recognize that in order to be a Connecticut firearms permit holder, you have to be a law abiding citizen. You are who we protect and serve, and we have the utmost respect for our permit holders.”

Lopez added: “We are proud to be your first line of defense. The issue for us is that you can see my badge and my uniform and know without a doubt that I am on your side. We just want the ability to verify your permit so we can also know that you are on our side.”