With House vote, CT moves to further tighten gun laws

Gun Rights

Gun controls demanded by Gov. Ned Lamont, plus elements of a tougher approach to gun crimes urged by four urban mayors, won overwhelming passage Thursday on a 96-51 vote by the House of Representatives.

The legislation would prohibit the open carry of firearms and further tighten restrictions on military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines largely banned after the Sandy Hook school shooting. It would also target repeat gun offenders with dedicated court dockets, higher thresholds for bail and probation, and tougher penalties.

Passage is assured in the Senate, promising the Democratic governor a victory as he continues to scuffle with members of his own party over a budget deal with less than two weeks before the legislature’s constitutional adjournment deadline of midnight June 7.

“We need to do everything we can to keep our communities safe and prevent those who intend on doing harm from accessing these deadly weapons,” said Lamont, a Democrat who made gun control an issue in winning election to a second term last year.

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The vote comes as America’s divide on guns widens, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority striking down a New York law that restricted carrying firearms, inviting other challenges to gun control. And red-state legislatures have repealed requirements for permits to purchase guns.

“In Connecticut, we’re not doing that,” said Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, who negotiated the final draft of the bill as co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. “We’re gonna continue to lead in order to continue to make our state safer by tightening up our gun laws.”

Passage came on a largely party-line vote in a House where Democrats hold a 98-53 advantage over Republicans. Seven Republicans voted for passage; five Democrats were opposed and four were absent. Democrats control the Senate, 24-12.

House Bill 6667, An Act Addressing Gun Violence, is the most comprehensive piece of gun legislation taken up in the past decade in Connecticut, a state with a storied history in the manufacture and marketing of firearms, including Colt’s bringing the AR-15 to a civilian market decades ago.

Among other things, the bill would regulate the sale of body armor to civilians, limit the sale of handguns to three in any one month, increase training requirements for gun permit holders, and raise the minimum age to purchase a semiautomatic rifle from 18 to 21, the same threshold as handguns.

The AR-15, a semiautomatic version of the M-16 rifle carried by U.S. forces in Vietnam, is both popular and despised. The NRA once dubbed it “America’s Rifle,” but it also has become synonymous with mass shootings in schools, including Sandy Hook in 2012 and Uvalde, Texas, a year ago.

“Too often we see that when somebody goes in and shoots a school around the country, what are the two common things they have? They have an AR-15 and wearing body armor,” Stafstrom said.

[RELATED: CT gun safety bill advances, one day after Nashville shooting]

Republicans lined up in opposition, complaining it was too focused on law-abiding gun owners and the mass shootings that generate headlines and not enough on more commonplace gun crimes: Street shootings with illegal handguns, often involving shooters and victims with criminal backgrounds.

“An Act Addressing Gun Violence, it’s a joke. That is a joke of a name,” said Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin. “This bill does not address gun violence. This bill should be called an act attacking law abiding citizens’ right to possess firearms.”

The Democratic mayors of Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury — the cities where the chief state’s attorney says 80% of the reported gun violence occurs — successfully lobbied for provisions that require more stringent bail conditions on defendants defined as a “serious firearms offender.”

With universal background checks to purchase firearms and a risk-warrant law allowing the seizure of firearms from people deemed a threat to themselves or others, Connecticut’s gun safety laws already were ranked among the strongest in the U.S.

FBI statistics on violent crime consistently show Connecticut among the safest states, but shootings in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury have spiked, often involving a small cohort of shooters and victims who are young and have criminal records.

Dubitsky noted that the police chief of New Haven had testified that about 90 people were responsible for most gun crimes.

“They said that in a city like New Haven with 135,000 people there are about 90 people who engage in all of the major violent crimes — 90 people out of 135,000. We know who those people are. We have their names. We have their photographs. We have their fingerprints. We know where they live,” Dubitsky said. “This bill is not directed at them. It’s directed at the people who don’t commit crimes.”

Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, the ranking House Republican on Judiciary, contributed to the bill’s final form. He suggested the inclusion of provisions sought by gun owners, such as a safety valve for gun permit seekers whose applications sit too long after the state-mandated time limit of eight weeks for action.

Obtaining a gun permit requires passing a criminal background check, a suitability review by local police and a final review by state police. If local authorities do not act in 16 weeks, the state police are free to issue a permit.

Fishbein, a gun owner, praised the criminal justice changes sought by the mayors. But ultimately he voted against the bill as too focused on restricting gun sales as opposed to enforcing criminal gun laws.

“This state and legislature is in a seemingly perpetual cycle of blaming the law abiding while ignoring the law breaker,” Fishbein said. “Ninety per cent of this legislation impacts legal gun owners and does nothing to reduce the gun violence it was purported to address.”

Other Republicans said they were torn, finding much to applaud and to oppose.

“I hate that I’m struggling with this bill,” said Rep. Irene Haines, R-East Haddam.

She voted no.

Watching from the gallery were members of Connecticut Against Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action, two gun control groups.

“We applaud the House for recognizing the multi-faceted approach needed to address gun violence in our state by passing this comprehensive gun safety package,” said Joanna Taczanowsky, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action. “Passing this bill is crucial to keeping Connecticut a national leader in the gun safety movement and ensuring the safety and well-being of Connecticuters across the state.”

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