With thousands of shootings already this year nationwide, Connecticut lawmakers clashed Monday over Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposals to restrict the purchase and use of guns.
Lamont’s multi-pronged plan calls for preventing anyone under 21 from buying any gun, limiting handgun purchases, requiring registration of previously grandfathered assault weapons and increasing penalties regarding large-capacity magazines.
His 73-page plan is also seeking to ban the “open carry” of a gun and prevent anyone from buying more than one handgun per month. The purchasing restriction is designed to reduce “straw” purchases in which a person might buy 20 guns and then sell them on the streets — often to convicted criminals who are not eligible to purchase a gun legally due to their criminal record.
The legislature’s judiciary committee had already heard three hours of testimony by noon in a public hearing that was expected to continue throughout the day.
Jeremy Stein, a former prosecutor who serves as the executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, noted that guns are the leading cause of death among people under age 19, adding that 380,000 guns are stolen nationwide every year.
“Most gun owners are not storing guns safely, despite what you might hear today,” Stein said, adding that a study showed that 46% of gun owners nationally left their guns “unsecured, unlocked and not even hidden away.”
Stein cited the case of Clinton Howell, a 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed in Bridgeport in 2018 while he “was standing outside his house, minding his own business. The gun that was used was stolen.” The convicted shooter was later sentenced to 32 years in prison.
Stein agrees with Lamont’s call for limiting gun sales to one per month in an effort to curtail “straw” purchases.
“Why does anyone need to buy 30 guns in any given month?” Stein asked. “People can buy as many guns and ammunition and there’s no limit.”
While the committee heard from gun-control advocates, they also heard testimony from gun owners in the general public.
Hyde Harman, who served in the military during the Vietnam War, said Lamont’s plan would restrict the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
“I don’t open carry, but I don’t care if someone else does,” said Harman, adding that state police often take 15 minutes to respond to his rural town of Voluntown along the Rhode Island border in eastern Connecticut.
Since overall crime is down in recent years and both Lamont and then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy have closed prisons, Harman questioned why Lamont’s proposals are needed.
“If crime is down, why so many new restrictions?” Harman asked. “How is limiting my ability to purchase more than one gun per month going to stop crime? If the assumption is that I am making straw purchases, which is already illegal, then I am offended and this almost sounds libelous to me.”
Republicans, the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers strongly opposed the various measures, saying that the state must focus on enforcing the laws that are already on the books and prosecuting gun crimes. The bills, they said, are overly burdensome for law-abiding gun owners who are not responsible for mass shootings and gun violence in the cities.
Waterbury police chief Fernando Spagnolo supports the measures, saying police have recovered numerous guns on the city streets.
“We must start to recognize the everlasting trauma” of gun violence, Spagnolo said.
Rep. Gregory Howard, a Republican who also works as a police detective in Stonington, said that he keeps his guns locked up in his home where his two young sons also live.
“I trust my boys, but I’m not gambling their lives on it,” Howard said. “At some point in time, we have to blame criminals for the actions they take.”
Advocates, citing a federal study, said that 90% of the guns used in crimes are either stolen or illegal. Citing those statistics, Republicans said the state should concentrate on illegal guns, rather than those held by law-abiding gun owners.
Darin Goens, state director of the NRA who has testified for 17 years in 11 states, said it is “splitting hairs” on which state has the toughest guns laws, but Connecticut ranks in the top five with California, New York, and others. He noted that New York and New Jersey have storage laws, but gun crimes have continued. He questioned boosting the age to 21, up from 18, to purchase a gun.
Currently, those 18 and older are allowed to purchase rifles or so-called long guns while handguns are limited to those 21 and older. But Goens said the increased age would not have stopped various shootings around the nation.
“We could pass everything on the slate here today and it would have no impact,” Goens said, adding that criminals “don’t care” and will not follow the laws.
Jake McGuigan, managing director of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said he is concerned about a bill supporting micro-stamping, which is mandated in California.
“The technology is unproven,” McGuigan said. “The technology does not function reliably. … It’s only going to impact law-abiding gun owners purchasing at the retail level. … No manufacturers know how to comply.”
Mica Song, a 19-year-old student at Trinity College, said she wants to prevent future tragedies that were similar to those of her cousin, Ethan Song, who shot himself in a gun accident. Since then, his death has galvanized gun control advocates to push for stronger laws requiring proper gun storage so they cannot fall into the hands of children.
“I refuse to let him die in vain,” Song said.
Gun supporters say that “open carry” is not a significant problem in Connecticut — in that residents can generally go about their business at supermarkets, restaurants or Little League fields and never see someone openly carrying a gun.
Asked earlier by The Courant about that criticism, Lamont responded, “I think it’s a risk. If you look in Wisconsin, you saw regarding some of the demonstrations that were going on, you see that it can be incredibly provocative and create a dangerous situation. I can wait until we have a situation here in Connecticut. Why wait?”
An important incident that has been cited in the legislature for years was the case of two men who were openly carrying guns in hip holsters while walking on the West Haven boardwalk in June 2013. The men were approached by police and asked to show whether they had a gun permit. One man showed his permit, but the second man refused — and was charged with interfering with police.
A judge later dismissed the case, and a prosecutor said the arrested man had a permit but simply did not want to show it to police. The arrested man told police that he did not need to display the permit under the law — and the prosecutor and the judge agreed.
The incident set off a debate in the legislature in an attempt to change the law, leading to long debates about the Constitution, public safety, and Fourth Amendment rights on searches and seizures.
The judiciary committee is scheduled to vote on the various proposals before its committee deadline of March 31, and final action is expected before the legislative session ends on June 7.
Christopher Keating can be reached at [email protected]
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