Gary Winfield
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, prior to Friday’s gun debate. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Gun regulations including a more expansive assault weapons ban, a prohibition on the open carry of firearms, and higher bail requirements for repeat offenders all won final passage in an early morning vote of the Connecticut Senate on Saturday.

On a 24-11 vote, lawmakers sent the package of gun reforms to Gov. Ned Lamont, who proposed many of the concepts in the 148-page proposal at the outset of the legislative session. The House approved the bill on a 96-51 vote last week. 

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“While I firmly believe that our country needs stronger laws at the federal level to prevent gun violence, the inaction by Congress requires each individual state to act, and this legislation that is now heading to my desk includes several comprehensive changes that modernize our firearm safety laws in a smart and strategic way to help prevent tragedy from happening,” Lamont said. 

The bill represents the most substantial overhaul of Connecticut’s gun laws since 2013, when state officials responded to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting with regulations containing bans on specific weapons including the AR-15 style gun used in the killings.

This year’s legislation builds out that ban by adding weapons with certain prohibited features like flash suppressors or silencers. It also reaches back to include previously exempted guns manufactured before September of 1994. The bill permits anyone who lawfully owned a newly banned firearm to retain it if they register with the state by next May. 

During the debate, Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, said the impact of gun violence extended beyond those killed or injured to the fear it inspired in others. 

“My children — for a certain period of time and some of them still — have been afraid to go to school. They’re afraid of being shot,” Slap said. “That is a horrible way to go through childhood, to have that anxiety.”

Moms Demand Action
Members of Moms Demand Action await the gun legislation debate in the Senate gallery. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

The bill includes a limited ban on “open carry.” Proponents sought to reassure gun owners that the change was meant to impact intentional displays of firearms rather than accidental flashes of a concealed weapon or its outline perceived through clothing.  

The proposal hikes penalties for failure to report a stolen gun or possession of a large capacity magazine. It restricts the sale of body armor, attempts to crack down on straw sales by limiting handgun purchases to three per month, and raises the age to buy a semiautomatic rifle to 21 years-old.

An existing registration requirement for weapons with no serial numbers, often called “ghost guns,” would expand under the bill to include guns manufactured before 2019. 

Proponents praised the new regulations as common sense responses to a growing epidemic of shootings. 

“From a public health perspective, these are very reasonable things to do,” Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, said. “It is important for us to take the right steps to protect our children, our adults, our community, our society.” 

Elements of the bill were based on recommendations by a coalition of mayors from the state’s largest cities. They included provisions to limit and more easily revoke bail and probation for offenders repeatedly convicted of certain gun crimes. The bill also creates dedicated gun dockets to speed up prosecution of those offenses. 

Though its passage was never in doubt, the legislation received prolonged opposition from most members of the chamber’s Republican minority caucus, who argued that too many of its policies were directed at the state’s legal gun owners rather than those committing most gun crimes.

Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican who serves as a ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said gun violence posed a “conundrum” for Connecticut residents that was unlikely to be solved by the legislation. 

“It’s just more gun regulations on law-abiding people and what’s it going to do? Not a heckuva lot. I feel bad. Prove me wrong,” Kissel said. “Every year I come back and I’m not proven wrong. So the mantra is, ‘We’ve got to ban more stuff.’”

Republicans filed dozens of unsuccessful amendments, many of them authored by Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, who said he counted himself among the state’s Second Amendment supporters who felt attacked by the bill and other firearm regulations. 

“They feel like the state government has taken off a hand and now they’re coming back for an arm and maybe a leg and it just never seems to end,” Sampson said. 

Not all Republicans opposed the bill. Sen. Tony Hwang, a Fairfield Republican whose district includes Newtown, supported it despite acknowledging that his vote would “draw the ire” of gun advocates. Hwang recalled the legislative debate following the Sandy Hook shooting and bemoaned the event’s lasting legacy as a touchstone for divisive gun control debates. 

“It has become such a charge point because Sandy Hook will forever define our generation,” Hwang said. “But it’s not allowed to go away, it’s not allowed to ebb into the memory of respecting, memorializing and learning and moving forward.”

Sampson spoke for several hours, occasionally questioning Senate Judiciary Committee co-chair Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, and raising a long series of unsuccessful amendments. 

Despite the legislative session’s looming Wednesday deadline, Slap said early in the evening  that the debate was time well-spent. 

“This is one of those debates, however long it goes on, it’s worth it. It really is,” he said. “This bill is going to save lives.”