Sportsmen’s Caucus above the fray on guns, for now

Should Connecticut continue to stock its woodlands with 17,000 adult pheasants for the pleasure of hunters? Will there be another effort to ban the use of lead sinkers by anglers? How about permitting Sunday hunting?

In years past, those might be the hottest issues facing the Sportsmen's Caucus of the General Assembly. Not this year, when gunfire from a Newtown school still echoes through every corner of the State Capitol.

Rep. Linda A. Orange, D-Colchester, registered mock surprise Thursday as she arrived for the organizational meeting of the caucus. Four reporters greeted her, which is exactly four more than normal.

"We've never had so much press," said Orange, a Hartford Hospital respiratory therapist by training, a politician by avocation in a legislature that remains a part-time enterprise, in theory at least.

Orange Miner

Linda Orange, Craig Miner talk to reporters and lobbyists.

The caucus is a small, genial, bipartisan group of legislators whose districts hold significant numbers of hunters, anglers, hikers and the like -- and businesses that derive significant revenue from them.

Gun lobbyists hope they will be an important part of the debate over how the legislature ultimately responds to the shooting deaths of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14.

"It is a moderating influence, for sure," said John Larkin, newly hired lobbyist of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group that happens to be located in Newtown, not far from Sandy Hook.

But the caucus is small.

In a legislature of 187 members, only 15 legislators were present Thursday, though Orange blamed the attendance on a conflict with another event, not a desire by anyone to put distance between themselves and sportsmen.

"No, not at all," Orange said, when asked if she anticipated a drop off in membership.

Gun lobbyists are trying to find their footing after Newtown, looking for a counterweight to the sudden push for gun control.

On Dec. 13, the gun industry and sportsmen knew well their standing in Hartford, where their opposition kept a ban on high-capacity magazines from advancing beyond a public hearing last year. By nightfall on the 14th, Newtown and guns were the focus of every television in America.

No caucus member signaled a desire Thursday to step forward as that counterweight, nor was anything ruled out.

"I do not think that's going to be an issue for us, in terms of having it consume us," Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, said of gun control. "I want to be able to focus on all sorts of things."

Hunting seasons, rules about trapping, fees for fishing and hunting, access to open spaces are issues in Connecticut, a surprise to urban residents or those who see the state as a bedroom suburb of New York.

The Sportsmen's Caucus was founded in 2005 by Eileen Daily of Westbrook, a state senator who did not seek re-election last year. Her district included communities on the lower Connecticut River and Long Island Sound, places where duck blinds can be found not far from I-95 or Amtrak's shoreline route.

Her Republican successor, Art Linares of Westbrook, is a caucus member.

Robert Crook, the executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, said he once hoped the legislature in 2013 would reconsider its ban on Sunday hunting, among the last of the old blue laws.

His membership is now tightly focused on gun laws.

A ban on high-capacity magazines is seen as a given, supported by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and leaders of both houses. Adam Lanza, the shooter in Newtown, used a semiautomatic rifle fitted with a 30-round magazine to kill the children and staff.

Malloy has said a ban high-capacity magazines should be of no concern to sportsmen. Other ideas include tighter regulation on the sale of rifles and ammunition.

"I think they've got to get involved in guns," Crook said of the caucus. "Guns are used in hunting."

Miner, a hunter who also is one of the House Republican's leading authorities on the state budget, said he expects that caucus as a group or individually will get involved in some of the gun issues.

"I think there are logical cross-overs. I suspect if wanted to have a broader conversation about the cost of ammunition, that is a logical cross over," Miner said, a reference to a proposal to impose a heavy tax on ammunition.

But the only conversations Thursday about guns were started by reporters, not caucus members.