December 14, 2012, is one of those days during which virtually everyone in Connecticut remembers where they were when they heard the news out of Sandy Hook. For another generation it might have been where they were when they heard the news of President Kennedy’s death, or of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in which 161 people with ties to our state perished.
But for many of us, the massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School was the shock of our lives. I was sitting at my desk at the independent school where I was development director when at about 10 a.m. I received a vaguely worded text from a friend with ties to the State Police. I looked at the major media sites and found nothing. But there were reports on Twitter of a school shooting incident in Newtown.
Ten minutes later, I was able to pull up FOX-61 on my office computer and stream it live as Al Terzi began anchoring the coverage. Details were sketchy, but Terzi said there were preliminary reports of possible multiple deaths in the building. This is one of those rare cases where I profoundly wished the media got it wrong. As more complete information was starting to emerge, the stream failed, overwhelmed no doubt, by the strain of hundreds of thousands of anxious people desperately trying to view the coverage at the same time.
It’s worth asking whether any progress against school and gun violence has been made since that fateful day in 2012 that shocked the sensibilities of the world. After all, 20 families that should have been shopping for holiday gifts instead found themselves shopping for tiny coffins.
The obvious place to start is with the security of school buildings themselves. Since the tragedy, the state of Connecticut has allocated $73 million in competitive grants to cover public school security school improvements, with another $10 million to become available early next year, according to a report published Monday in the Hartford Courant. The funds have been used to pay for 1,700 projects statewide, including such improvements as surveillance cameras, penetration-resistant vestibules, ballistic glass, solid core doors, panic alarms, buzzers and bollards.
The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents told the Courant that until Sandy Hook, security threats were viewed as mostly coming from the inside (fighting among students or disgruntled school employees, for example). And of course, the school shooting that seemed to get the ball rolling at Columbine High School in Colorado, was carried out by a pair of students in 1999. The deadliest mass killing ever in a school setting, the 1927 Bath School disaster in Michigan, was engineered by a school board treasurer who used no guns.
Now the emphasis is on hardening the schools as targets and, in some cases, obtaining the services of armed school resource police officers. The cops themselves are generally better trained to respond to mass shootings than they were 10 years ago, though if they dither or don’t communicate properly, as happened last year during the massacre of school children in Uvalde, Texas, the training hardly matters.
But inevitably – or so it seems – proposed solutions to the epidemic of violence center on controlling the firearms that make quick massacres possible. The elected officials in Connecticut who make our laws were hit hard by what happened at Sandy Hook. That could explain why they took collective action at the Capitol when lawmakers elsewhere might not have.
The four top leaders in the General Assembly wanted to take action but quickly concluded that any legislation should be bipartisan, even though Democrats controlled both houses as well as the governor’s office and probably could have rammed through a bill. So Senate President Don Williams, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, House Minority Leader Larry Cafero, and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, whose district included Newtown, put their heads together and dealt with one of the thorniest and most divisive issues facing the country.
It took months of negotiation but lawmakers eventually passed one of the toughest gun control measures in the country. Among other features, the legislation banned future sales of 100 additional firearm models, including the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle model used at Sandy Hook.
The bill also outlawed new purchases of high-capacity magazines and included new standards for mental health care and school security. Those who already owned the banned weapons and ammunition clips were grandfathered in, provided that the owners register them in a timely manner. Gun homicide rates subsequently dropped to the point that Connecticut had among the lowest gun-death rates in the country.
I would be remiss in failing to acknowledge the fine work of Sandy Hook Promise and other nonprofit groups founded by survivors of the massacre that have heightened awareness and saved lives through crisis intervention.
According to the chief medical examiner’s office, the number of deaths resulting from firearms — including homicides, suicides and accidents — fell to 164 in 2016, from 226 in 2012. We’ll never know for sure if the new law had anything to do with the drop, but it seems reasonable to conclude that it played a role.
There have been a number of legal actions contesting Connecticut’s gun laws, most recently by the National Association for Gun Rights, whose lawsuit challenges Connecticut’s 2013 law, which not only prohibits most people from owning semi-automatic rifles, but also magazines with more than 10 rounds.
Not long after the ambush murders in October of two Bristol cops by an attacker who used an AR-15-style rifle, Lamont suggested ending the grandfathering provision. That trial balloon was met with scarce enthusiasm from lawmakers who had negotiated the bipartisan provision in good faith 10 years ago.
On the national level, there has been little progress. Despite the urgent and grief-stricken comments of our own Sen. Chris Murphy whenever another outburst of mass gun violence occurs, his colleagues in Washington mostly sit on their hands. Most recently, however, Congress in June passed a bipartisan package of gun reforms, breaking what Murphy called a “three-decade logjam” on gun legislation. But the bill only contained new background check requirements and funding aimed at bolstering state red flag laws, among other provisions.
I remain pessimistic that Congress can pass reasonable measures such as the 1994 ban on assault-style weapons, which unfortunately was written to expire after 10 years unless Congress renewed it. Flawed as it was, the law had a positive effect in reducing certain types of gun violence, though the extent of its success has been a matter of some dispute.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, since Sandy Hook there have been 27 mass shootings at educational settings in the United States: 19 at elementary schools and eight at colleges or universities.
The conservative bent of both Congress and the Supreme Court make it unlikely that federal bans on these military-style weapons of war will be enacted anytime soon. Meanwhile, states where some sense of sanity prevails can continue fighting the good fight. Keep at it, Senator Murphy. The alternative is throwing in the towel.