A gun law touted as one of the strictest in the nation — despite some compromises — was passed by the state legislature with bipartisan support this week. Gov. Dannel Malloy, who’s pushed for tighter gun laws since December’s school shooting in Newtown, signed the bill into law about midday Thursday.
Ridgefield state Rep. John Frey said the compromise bill addressed a wide swath of concerns relating to guns, ammunition, school security, and the mental health problems behind random shootings.
“All in all, I think it included some very good things,” he said.
Over the last three months, Mr. Frey said, he’d been approached by and talked to many, many Ridgefielders who were concerned about this bill in the wake of the Newtown tragedy.
“I would say probably over 100, for sure. I’d say that’s more than have called me on any other issue,” he said.
Opinions on the bill were divided pretty close to 50%-50%, he said, among the diverse sampling of people he’s spoken to — from police Chief John Roche, to parents vehemently opposed to guns, to sportsmen thoughtfully concerned about Second Amendment rights.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of people since Dec. 14,” he said. “I’ve spoken to Chief Roche and some cops in Ridgefield. I’ve spoken to cops in Newtown and State Police. I’ve spoken to people in Ridgefield who are NRA instructors. Likewise, I’ve spoken to concerned parents who want all guns off the street. I think there’s something in there for everybody to like, and something for everybody not to like.”
The comprehensive bill includes a ban on sales of high-capacity ammunition magazines. In Newtown, the gunman fired off 154 shots in five minutes, with a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle, using 30-round magazines. Twenty children and six educators were killed.
The bill requires registration of existing magazines that carry 10 or more bullets, a disappointment for some gun-control advocates and family members of Newtown victims who’d lobbied for an outright ban on possession of all high-capacity magazines.
The law imposes immediate universal background checks for all firearms sales, including those at gun shows.
It would extend the state’s existing assault weapons ban to 100 new types of firearms. The newly banned weapons could no longer be bought or sold in Connecticut, and those already legally owned would have to be registered.
The law also creates what is described as the nation’s first statewide dangerous weapon offender registry, mandating that offenders convicted of any of more than 40 weapons offenses register with the state.
The bill had bipartisan support in both houses of the legislature, passing 26-10 in the state Senate and 105-44 in the House of Representatives.
Mr. Frey, whose 111th House District covers nearly all of Ridgefield, and fellow Republican state Sen. Toni Boucher, whose district includes Ridgefield, supported the bipartisan compromise bill.
Rep. Jan Giegler, a Republican whose 138th House District includes parts of northern Ridgefield, Danbury and New Fairfield, cast what her office described as “a tough vote against” the bill.
“This bill does not focus on the true issue in the tragedy at Sandy Hook, mental health which was at the root of the rampage at Sandy Hook,” Rep. Giegler said in a statement released Wednesday. “The tragedy in Newtown was caused by a person who should never have had access to a gun in the first place.”
Rep. Giegler, who served on the Legislative Gun Task Force that put the bill together, and was a ranking member of its Public Safety and Security Committee, said she was troubled that the bill package did not have more information about mental health and school safety, and focused so much on guns, restricting the Second Amendment rights of responsible gun owners.
“Every two years as elected officials, we stand and raise our right hands and swear to uphold the State and Federal Constitutions which I feel I would not be doing by voting for this bill,” Rep. Giegler added. “As a parent I deeply care about the safety of our children in their learning environment but this bill has missed the mark, creating more regulation and little to make individuals safer, consequently I cannot support it,” Rep. Giegler said.
The proposals Rep. Giegler said she does support are: Universal Background Checks, requiring possession of an Eligibility Certificate or a pistol permit to purchase a long gun from any retail or private seller, increasing purchase age to 21 for certain long guns, increasing requirements to purchase ammunition and magazines, extending safeguards to Internet sales, expand safe storage, stricter mental health look backs, reconstituting the Statewide Firearms Trafficking Task Force, and no early releases for violent gun crimes.
Rep. Giegler explained that she wished she’d never have to make a vote like this in these circumstances.
Mr. Frey said he had mixed feelings supporting a bill he said will make Connecticut’s gun laws the nation’s toughest.
“We’re already the fourth strictest gun control state in the country,” he said. “It doesn’t take much to make us No. 1.”
The law, he said, doesn’t take away legally owned guns, even those it will no longer be legal to buy or sell.
“Obviously I have a problem with confiscating something that was acquired legally. It appears there’s Supreme Court cases that support that,” Mr. Frey said.
The requirement for “universal background checks” has wide support among constituents. “Talking to both sides,” he said, “… I haven’t heard one person have a problem with that.”
Senator Boucher served on the task force that developed the bill, and was a co-chair of its School Security Subcommittee.
“When a parent sends their child to school they expect them to be safe,” Sen. Boucher said. “The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting rampage was a parent’s, school system, and community if not the nation’s worst nightmare. Newtown teachers, first responders, town leaders, first selectwoman, and the community’s response were heroic. We could not be prouder of them.”
Among the key elements of the bill from a school security perspective is a requirement that school systems develop security plans, and that state agencies put together guidelines for the school security plans
“We wanted to give municipalities flexibility to develop and implement their own plans, but also have statewide standards that had to be met,” Senator Boucher said.
The standards developed by the state Department of Education (SDE) and the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protect (DESPP) must include the numerous components:
- An all-hazards approach;
- Involvement of local officials, including the chief executive officer of the municipality, the superintendent of schools, law enforcement, fire, public health, emergency management and emergency medical services;
- A command center organization structure;
- A requirement that a school security and safety committee be established at each school;
- Crisis management procedures;
- A requirement that local law enforcement and other local public safety officials evaluate, score and provide feedback on fire drills and crisis response drills and annually submit reports to DESPP regarding such fire drills and crisis response drills;
- Procedures for managing various types of emergencies;
- A requirement that each local and regional board of education conduct a security and vulnerability assessment for each school under the jurisdiction of such board every two years and develop a school security and safety plan for each such school;
- A requirement that the safe school climate committee, which is the bullying committee, collect and evaluate information relating to instances of disturbing or threatening behavior that may not meet the definition of bullying;
- A requirement that the school security and safety plan for each school provide an orientation on such school security and safety plan to each school employee at such school and provide violence prevention training in a manner prescribed in such school security and safety plan.
The bill also creates a state School Safety and Infrastructure Council to develop standards that school buildings must meet by next January, concerning things like entranceway buzzer systems, locks, cameras and the like.
It authorizes $15 million in state bonding for a competitive grant program to reimburse towns for the part of the cost of security improvements. Grants would be awarded percentages of cost based on the formula used to reimburse for other school construction. Ridgefield has been getting about 22% reimbursement under the formula.
“It was a privilege to serve as your co-chair- of the School Security subcommittee and proud to report that our recommendations were developed in a bipartisan, consensus manner,” Sen. Boucher told her colleagues. “The members of the committee are grateful to see that the school security language contained in this bill substantially matches the spirit of the sub-committees recommendations.”
Senator Boucher provided links to the Bi-Partisan Task Force’s summaries of the bill’s provisions, group in three major areas:
- Gun Violence Prevention Provisions: http://www.cga.ct.gov/ASaferConnecticut/docs/GVPP.pdf
- School Security Provisions: http://www.cga.ct.gov/ASaferConnecticut/docs/SSP.pdf
- Mental Health Provisions: http://www.cga.ct.gov/ASaferConnecticut/docs/MHP.pdf
Democrats, who are generally more sympathetic to gun laws, control the legislature and could have pushed a bill through, Mr. Frey said. But a legacy of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School is a new spirit of cooperation — at least on this issue.
“They could have passed a bill without any Republican input and it would have looked a little bit different. But I think this bipartisan approach has clearly served a purpose,” Mr. Frey said.
Still, he recognized the limits of what lawmakers can do.
“My niece and nephew go to Sandy Hook. If there was something we could do that would make those incidents never happen again, I’d be all over it,” he said.
“I think if this was the law December 1st, last year, that tragedy would still have occurred.”
While opinion among Ridgefielders was divided between gun rights and gun control advocates, Mr. Frey said, he was struck by the reasonable, rational tone of most of the discussion.
“My experience on this issue is people have been really understanding, and wanting to hear both sides and, really, quite rational,” he said.
Chief Roche said he didn’t know all the details of the bill, speaking to The Press before it was voted on by the legislature. But the chief said he supported much of it.
“I think it’s something that needs to be done,” he said.
“There’s really no reason for a civilian to have access to a military grade weapon. You do have these AR-15s, the Bushmasters, these assault-style rifles. Now, I understand that people want to have the right to carry these, but to have 30 rounds of ammunition — you don’t need that kind of firepower for hunting.”
The new law bans sales of ammunition magazines that fire more than 10 rounds at a clip. And though it wouldn’t outlaw them, it requires registration of magazines with more than 10 rounds.
Limits on how many rounds a gun can fire without reloading interested First Selectman Rudy Marconi, who wondered if the town could use the state law to pass more stringent local regulations.
“It grandfathers the magazines,” he said. “It says it includes a ban on the future sale of high-capacity magazines with more than 10 bullets. But it did not include a complete ban on their ownership. …
“A municipality cannot enact any local ordinance unless there is enabling legislation at the state level,” he said. “Now that the state is banning the sale of future magazines, my question would be, Can a municipality through its ordinance process pass a law banning magazines greater than 10 bullets? Illegal, period.”
A ban might be something the town would consider, Mr. Marconi said. A new town ordinance would require support of the Board of Selectmen and then a town meeting, he said.
“In speaking with some local gun owners and hunters, there’s been little if any defense of high-capacity magazines, and I think that the state perhaps should have gone a little farther, although what they’ve done is substantial.
“And I think municipalities, if they’re in disagreement with the state and would like to go a bit further with a ban on high-capacity magazines, they should do so,” he said.
It’s a question he thinks Ridgefield will explore.
“We’ll certainly debate it. It’s a Board of Selectmen question,” he said. “Obviously the final determination will be in the hands of the people of Ridgefield.”
Robert Tarafkiewicz is a Ridgefield gun owner who talked to state Rep. Frey.
“I enjoy shooting,” he said. “… I’m still active. I’m a trap shooter.”
He had concerns about the bill, but wasn’t alarmed by it. Some aspects he supports.
“I still shoot and stuff. But I’m not worried about my gun being taken away from me,” he said. “… I really feel these semi-automatic, military-type weapons, there’s really no need for them from a sportsman’s point of view. And there’s no need for high-capacity magazines from a sportsman’s point of view.”
He thought he understood people who want the right to more sophisticated weapons.
“The people who feel they need them, it’s a feeling they’re going to protect the country — John Wayne-, Minuteman-type mentality. It’s a very strong feeling they have,” he said.
“People are very emotional about it. I try to be reasonable,” he said. “I’m 72 years old now, I’ve been using firearms since I was a Boy Scout.”
Katherine McGerald, a mother and a former school board member, helped organize buses from Ridgefield to the March for Change demonstration that drew 5,000 people to Hartford Feb. 14 demanding stronger gun laws.
“I am hopeful that this compromise represents to Connecticut and the nation that a majority of people felt strongly that the laws on the books were outdated and did not reflect current attitudes toward gun ownership,” she said. “… The bill falls short on some key provisions, but there is much to herald concerning the compromise. Universal background checks is an important key to this bill and something with almost unanimous support. Expanding the assault weapons ban and making a new crime of illegal possession of ammunition makes complete sense.
“I just wish the legislators had listened to the Newtown families who went to them and pleaded for the package to contain a retroactive ban on high capacity magazines …
“I suppose it’s the political reality of the world we live in, but I wish more courage had been shown.”
On Monday, April 8, President Obama will travel to the University of Hartford where he will continue ask Americans to join him in calling on Congress to pass common-sense measures to reduce gun violence.