With crime rates high and new types of guns reaching Connecticut in the early 1990s, lawmakers were looking for ways to turn the tide. “It was a very different time when it came to public policy related to firearms,” former state Rep. Mike Lawlor said Thursday at the Capitol. That attitude helped push a controversial, but bipartisan bill to ban most assault weapons in 1993.
Thursday, just a week shy of the 30th anniversary of that bill’s passage, Democrats made a push for a new sweeping gun bill making its way through the legislature.
“We are a safer state because of these laws, and it’s clearly demonstrable,” Gov. Ned Lamont said during a press conference at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
The bill, proposed by Lamont, cleared the House of Representatives last week with a 96-51 vote. It now awaits action in the Senate.
The proposal would, among other things, expand the assault weapon ban to address new guns, ban openly carrying a firearm in public and stricter penalties for people identified as high-risk offenders.
But getting the bill to Lamont’s desk won’t be easy. Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, was adamant he has the votes, but he also knows the bill will lead to a lengthy debate.
Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, promised as much after the press conference, saying he hopes to run out the clock on the bill with the legislative session ending next Wednesday.
“I am working every second of my day to prevent that bill from coming,” Sampson said. “To me, that’s the number one bill that I want to stop.”
But Looney said getting a vote on the bill was also a priority for him.
“That really doesn’t matter,” Looney said about the prospect of a long debate. “Whatever time it takes, we’ll devote to it.”
Perhaps the biggest change in the bill would be the ban on open carry. The prohibition would not apply when a person catches a “fleeting glimpse” of someone else carrying a gun, but it would outlaw openly displaying a firearm.
The bill would also expand the existing assault weapons ban. Proponents of the bill say manufacturers have changed the design of some guns to get around laws passed after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and this bill would address that.
The proposal contains sections designed to limit bail and probation for offenders repeatedly convicted of certain gun crimes as well as speed up prosecution of those offenses. The bill classifies as serious crimes like possessing a ghost or stolen gun, and altering a serial number.
Other changes include limiting each permit holder to three gun purchases in a month, a restriction on the sale of body armor to people who already have a pistol permit and a requirement that all guns be sold with a trigger lock.
Sampson said many of the provisions violate the 2nd Amendment and the state constitution’s protections for gun ownership.
“I’m hopeful that, some day, the Supreme Court of the United States will actually take up some of these cases … and set the record straight … about how much individual regulation the states can have,” Sampson said.
He does support some provisions, including a provision designed to ensure local police departments quickly process applications for gun permits. If a local agency takes more than 16 weeks to act on an application, the bill allows residents to submit the application directly to the state.
But Lawlor, who helped push the 1993 assault weapon ban, was confident the bill would withstand any legal challenges.
He also told lawmakers not to be deterred by a lengthy debate, recalling the 1993 bill also drew plenty of conversation in each chamber.
He and others who served in the legislature during the time, including now Lt. Gov Susan Bysiewicz and Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, recalled being told by opponents of the bill that they’d be voted out of office.
Connecticut was an early adopter of the ban, following California and New Jersey.
“The fact that Connecticut passed this law in ‘93 really opened the door for more progress,” he said. “It showed legislatures that you could come up — you could vote in favor of these proposals and you could survive politically.”
Lawlor and Looney recalled getting death threats from opponents. Looney said he even had an escort home from the Capitol police.
“That night is, I think, the only time in the 42 years that I’ve been here, that I abided by the speed limit all the way home,” Looney said.
Meanwhile, George Jepsen, then the Senate co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, recalled the 1993 ban being in jeopardy right up until the final vote. He said it passed seven votes, including at the committee level, by one vote each time.
“I can guarantee you two days in front of any one of those votes, we were still short on votes,” Jepsen said. “We were still scrounging votes just desperately.”
Earlier this week, Federal Court Judge Janet Bond Arterton found the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, which is suing Connecticut over the 2013 assault weapons ban, has no standing to seek a temporary restraining order to stop the state from enforcing the law while it makes it through the court.
“We cannot and will not allow these weapons of war back into our schools, our houses of worship, our grocery stores, or on our streets,” Attorney General William Tong said. “Connecticut’s assault weapons ban saves lives. It is fully lawful, has withstood legal challenge before, and I will vigorously defend it against any and every one of these baseless and reckless challenges,”