The governor’s Sandy Hook Advisory Commission opened its inquiry into the nation’s worst elementary school shooting Thursday with admonitions to resist hasty conclusions and a warning that a detailed police account of 20-year-old Adam Lanza’s murderous rampage is months away.
Bill Ritter, a former Colorado district attorney and governor who served on a similar commission that studied the Columbine shooting for a year, told the commissioners they bear the burden of trying to explain and draw lessons from the massacre of 26 students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“You can expect that your audience will be the people of Newtown, certainly the people of Connecticut,” Ritter said. “But the nation watches, and the nation asks questions and wants to understand why and how these kinds of tragic events continue to occur.”
It was a somber and sobering start for a group tasked by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy with the responsibility of recommending changes in gun laws, school security and mental health practices in the wake of Lanza’s assault on the Newtown school with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle.
A separate legislative task force begins its public hearings Friday with the goal of crafting a first round of gun legislation for action by the end of February, but Malloy assured the commission they have the time to go deeper and explore the intersection of guns, mental illness and school security.
“This is not a race,” Malloy said.
Malloy told Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, the chairman of the commission, that interim recommendations will be welcomed before the General Assembly adjourns its session in June.
“You have some pressure. On the other hand I am cover for you. Thoroughness and the ability of all voice to be heard is extremely important to the people of the state of Connecticut,” Malloy said. “I am not going to put you under any pressure. In fact, I’ll protect you from that pressure, should that be required.”
Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky, who is overseeing the police investigation of Sandy Hook, briefly addressed the commission, warning that his inquiry is likely to continue into June and that Lanza’s death will not necessarily waive expectations of privacy around his mental health.
Ritter, who appeared before the commission at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, was one of two witnesses Thursday with experience to trying to draw lessons from mass murder. The other, Professor Richard Bonnie of the University of Virginia Law School, spoke to them by video conference.
He advised the panel that examined the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. As did Ritter, Bonnie counseled a deliberate approach.
“As we all know, haste can lead to overreactions based on erroneous suppositions,” Bonnie said.
Ritter has had a more direct relationship to the confluence of guns, violence and mental illness.
As a prosecutor, he was on scene at Columbine as the two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, still were roaming the halls, looking for targets, and a police tactical team assembled outside the school. They killed 13 people, before committing suicide.
While Ritter was governor in 2007, a man claiming to be emperor arrived at the Colorado Capitol armed with a .357-caliber pistol, demanding to see Ritter. The intruder was shot to death by a state trooper.
Ritter matter-of-factly told the commissioners, a volunteer group with expertise in mental health, law enforcement, education and school security, that some of their findings will save lives.
“I want you to understand, as well, that your work actually can make a difference,” Ritter said. “This isn’t something perfunctory. This isn’t something a governor does, because it looks like they have to do that.”
A change in police protocol after Columbine, in fact, may have ended the Sandy Hook assault, he told them.
In 1999, when Harris and Klebold launched their assault on their high school in Littleton, Colo., police protocol was for the first officers to establish a perimeter, then wait for special tactical units.
Post-Columbine, the first officers to arrive at shootings are instructed to pursue an active shooter. It appears the Lanza ended his attack and committed suicide as the first officers ran into Sandy Hook.
University of Connecticut Police Chief Barbara O’Connor, a commission member, told Ritter, “Your work saved lives, no doubt about it.”
Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CTMirrorPaz