Markeshia Ricks / New Haven Independent
Sen. Gary Winfield (Markeshia Ricks / New Haven Independent)

HARTFORD, CT — While another active shooter drama unfolded on the West Coast Tuesday, Connecticut legislators debated whether to respond to the epidemic by restricting certain types of guns and accessories — or by allowing people to carry guns openly in state parks.

Those debates took place over hours before the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.

In the end, committee members voted to send bills that would ban a device that enhances the firing capability of a gun and create stricter regulations for so-called “ghost guns” to the full House of Representatives. A Republican-backed open-carry bill made it out of the committee.

The bills regulating the possession of ghost guns and banning the possession of bump stocks were championed by State Reps. William Tong and Steven Stafstrom, Democrats from Stamford and Bridgeport, respectively. Though Connecticut has some of the strongest gun laws in the country, Tong and Stafstrom, with the support of New Haven lawmakers, introduced the bills in response to a mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Judiciary Committee Tuesday ultimately voted overwhelmingly 36 to 5 for the bill to ban bump stocks. The vote in favor ofr regulating ghost guns was tighter, 25 to 16.

The Las Vegas shooting last October left 58 people dead and more than 700 injured. Since that time there have been several mass shootings, the largest of which was the Valentine’s Day shooting in a Parkland, Fla. high school where 17 people were killed. Bump stocks, a device used to modify how quickly a gun can fire, were allegedly used by the shooter in Las Vegas.

And, as if to underscore the prevalence of these events, Tuesday’s debate occurred as details trickled out about a woman entering the San Bruno, California, headquarters of YouTube and firing away at employees.

The bump-stock bill before Judiciary would require people who order partially completed guns for the purpose of building a gun at home must notify the state’s Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection within 30 days that they are in possession of such a kit and must obtain a serial number so that it is traceable. Failure to follow the law, should it pass the full legislature, would result in that person being guilty of a Class C felony, which carries at least two years in prison and at least a $5,000 fine.

Republican State Rep. Rob Sampson, who represents Wolcott and Southington, led the charge against the bump stock bill. A self-described avid defender of the Second Amendment, Sampson is a gun owner and card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association. He was the 2012 Connecticut Citizens Defense League Legislator of the Year and the 2014 NRA Defender of Freedom Awardee.

He told his Judiciary Committee colleagues Tuesday, speaking for nearly an hour before offering three amendments, that both gun bills were based on emotions, not facts. That the bills were, in fact, a political response particularly in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, which has sparked mass protests around the country. Sampson said though the state has some of the toughest laws on the books, they don’t stop shootings and they’re not the resources needed to stop the next school or mass shooting.

Sampson said most people can’t even tell you what a bump stock is. He suggested the state should invest instead in more school resource officers, funding the statewide firearm trafficking task force, and providing more mental health treatment. He offered amendments for funding those services. One would take the money from state’s public-financing program for elections. Another would rescind a state economic bailout package for the city of Hartford.

When those amendments failed, he offered an amendment that would make using a bump stock to commit a crime a Class D felony. That also failed.

“People have probably used knitting needles to commit more crimes than bump stocks,” Sampson said.

Stafstrom pointed out the irony of the committee being lectured for over an hour about Second Amendment rights and how gun ownership could prevent crime on the same day someone had walked into a private business (YouTube) and shot people and then killed herself with a gun.

“The intent of this bill is fairly simple,” Stafstrom said. “It is to honor the intent of the gun laws this legislature passed exactly five years ago today which say that automatic rifles have no place in our state.  When you take a semi-automatic weapon and add a bump stock you’re skirting the laws and intent of this legislature.”

Markeshia Ricks / New Haven Independent
Rep. Robyn Porter of New Haven (Markeshia Ricks / New Haven Independent)

New Haven State Rep. Robyn Porter challenged the notion that lawmakers were acting out of emotion and political motives. She said for her the bills are about protecting people’s lives.

“We talk about why we’ve been called here to this legislature and what we’ve been called here to do,” she said. “I think what we’ve been called here to do is to actually ensure the safety of every single citizen in this state. So it’s my constituents and everyone else’s constituents that work in this building.”

The illegal trafficking of guns plays a role in urban violence, which Porter pointed out wasn’t what was being talked about Tuesday. She also noted that the guns often used in mass shootings are purchased legally.

“The Parkland shooter bought his gun from Dick’s Sporting Goods,” Porter said. “It’s not a matter about what’s harmful to yourself … but when it affects people in the community, in the public, public safety, when lives are at risk it should prompt us to want to do something more.”

And she challenged the idea that strong gun laws don’t work pointing out that research has shown the opposite.

“The U.S. has more guns than any other country in the world,” Porter said. “It also has more gun deaths than any country in the world. We do have other issues, it’s not just about gun control…school is supposed to be the safest place outside of the home. For me, I think we should take away the option of having a bump stock when it makes killing a lot easier.”

Permission to Carry

The bill that would have allowed for people to openly carry guns in state parks made it out of committee as well —passing in a 21-20 vote.

Republican lawmakers argued that because of the rural nature of many of the state’s parks a gun could be handy for fending off a mugger, rapist, or a very hungry bobcat or bear. Some of the lawmakers who live in the more rural areas of the state pointed out that it’s not unusual to see a bear in their backyard.

Rep. Doug Dubitsky of Chaplin said that those who would be eligible to carry in state parks are “good people” who have jumped through all the state’s hoops “to be certified good guys.”

“They’re our friend and neighbors — people we know,” he said. Allowing such people to have their guns in state parks, where police help might be 30 or 40 minutes away, and a cell phone signal is out of reach would be a good thing, he said.

New Haven State Sen. Gary Winfield said knowing that there are people openly carrying guns in a state park wouldn’t make him feel safer.

“I think there is nothing wrong with a gun per se,” Winfield said, “but I think when you put the gun in the hand of an individual, individuals make judgment calls. We’ve seen that people who are trained don’t always make the best judgment calls.”

“In this country right now we’re looking at issues of police making judgment calls for people like myself that don’t always turn out to be the best judgment call,” he said. “When we think about placing guns in the hands of people and more corners of our state, it doesn’t make me feel safe at all. In fact, it makes me feel less safe. I don’t disregard the right that people have to carry a gun. I don’t disregard that they have that right given to them by the constitution. But we also have the right to regulate guns. I would err against allowing guns in state parks.”