Stronger gun-control laws in Connecticut are almost a certainty, according to state legislators from Fairfield at a forum staged locally Saturday as a new General Assembly session gets under way in Hartford.
"I think we're all committed," state Sen. John McKinney, R-28, told the Fairfield League of Women Voters forum in the Fairfield Museum and History Center. "I think you will see Connecticut pass a lot of stricter, far-reaching gun-control measures that will put us at the forefront of the country."
State Rep. Tony Hwang, R-134, said, "There is no doubt in my mind we are going to have gun-control legislation and it's going to be passed."
State Rep. Kim Fawcett, D-133, urged residents to attend a Feb. 14 rally at the state Capitol in Hartford in support of stronger gun-control laws. "The more people who are there, the stronger statement it makes," she said. Connecticut, she added, should have the toughest gun-control laws in the nation "because the entire nation is looking at us."
State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-132, recently appointed to the General Assembly's Public Safety Committee, said she is keeping an open mind and listening. "I want to make sure the public who comes before my committee doesn't feel this legislator has already made their mind up so why come and provide public comment," she said. The job as a legislator is "to listen and learn," she said, and then act on what she's learned.
Kupchick later said the problem of gun violence, which was raised Saturday in the context of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown that killed 20 first-graders and six educators, needs to be addressed on other fronts as well.
Kupchick said she attended a meeting of the National Alliance on Mental Illness last week and spoke afterward with a woman who discussed challenges she faced with getting help for her college-age son, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia but he doesn't feel he is sick and won't take medication. She said the woman told her she wanted to hospitalize her son, but has found that either beds aren't available or the hospital didn't accept the health insurance she has.
"I've learned that we're not doing a very good job of helping people with mental illness in the state, and, quite frankly, it's shameful," Kupchick said.
She predicted the debate in the legislature would include gun control, school safety and mental health. "I don't think it's just the one thing [gun control.] I think we need to look at all of it. I think it's a multi-pronged approach," she said. "I don't want us to fool ourselves into thinking if we do just one thing; I want us to do a lot of things."
Richard Ross, among the public who attended the forum, said if legislators get "bogged down" in trying to fix the state's mental health system, they would be "playing right into the NRA's hands."
Earlier, Hwang said the shock and sadness his family felt after learning of the Newtown massacre hadn't worn off. "This is a tragedy that hits far, far too close to home, and we need to turn that into something positive," he said. He said he supports "a practical limitation" on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and was "absolutely positive something will be done in that regard."
McKinney, the leader of the state Senate's Republicans, supports a ban on high-capacity magazines, so a gunman can't fire a lot of rounds without having to re-load. He said legislators should look at whether Connecticut residents need to get a permit for a long gun and not just a handgun, and whether state residents who buy ammunition should have to show a gun permit. "This way, someone in possession of a gun illegally wouldn't be able to buy ammunition," he said.
McKinney said the former federal assault weapons ban had prohibited weapons that had certain characteristics, but that didn't prevent manufacturers from building guns with slightly altered features to circumvent the ban.
McKinney said he recognized the need for people to defend themselves, but added, "I think there are things you don't need to have to exercise your [Second Amendment] right and there are weapons you don't need to have."
But McKinney said he doesn't think stronger gun-control laws in Connecticut would matter nearly as much if the federal government does not pass stronger laws as well because guns banned in the state still would find their way to Connecticut.
The gun-control debate will require legislators to answer a lot of questions, including, if high-capacity magazines are banned, what to do with tens of thousands of those magazines already in Connecticut, McKinney said. He added that legislators also need to consider if it's fair to ask someone applying for a gun permit if anyone in their house is mentally ill, how safe schools should be and whether the state or municipalities should set those standards, and if permitting names and addresses of gun permit holders to be publicly available makes society safer or more dangerous. He also mentioned looking at the civil commitment process for mentally ill residents who resist treatment because they do not think they are sick.
Jim Brown, from the audience, said the public knows little about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School and that he woould like to hear a detailed report from the State Police. "My concern is there are proposals without knowing what went on," he said. "I understand there's proposals, but you're putting the cart before the horse."
McKinney said legislators "do need to wait until we get that full investigative report," which he thought would be available in two to three months. But, he added, "A number of legislators will tell you these are issues we should have been addressing a long time ago."
Palma Senatore, a citizen who also spoke, said she didn't own a gun and hates weapons, but does not think making gun-control laws stronger would solve the problem. She said the nation has "a cultural problem" and asked the four legislators how the United States could "get back to values."
McKinney replied, "I don't know if I have an answer to that, other than my reaction to Sandy Hook is to be a better person. I've attended too many funerals of 6- and 7-year-olds."
Saturday's legislative forum also included discussion of campaign finance reforms, whether Election Day voter registration is a good idea, the state of Connecticut finances and potential changes to the state's affordable housing law.
Kupchick said developers have been using the affordable housing law as a way around local zoning regulations to overbuild, and Fawcett said one potential amendment that has bi-partisan support was to allow an exemption to towns that approve a local affordable housing plan that "adhered to smart-growth and transit-oriented principles." Kupchick said suburban legislators also are looking to include accessory apartments in the state's classification of affordable housing.
McKinney said the coalition to amend the affordable housing law, which Kupchick said has not been accomplishing its goal, is "more bi-partisan than it's ever been,' though he added, "I can't sit here and say it's going to happen this year."