With sharp elbows, Malloy jumps into gun debate

With a veiled swipe at Republican leaders, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is ready to pronounce the legislature's bipartisan task force on gun violence a failure and propose his own comprehensive package of gun-control measures.

Malloy's proposal is expected to be released Thursday at 10 a.m., before he shares a national stage with Vice President Joe Biden at a symposium on gun violence at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.

The governor's entrance into the legislative gun debate came without the careful stagecraft of previous proposals. Instead, the Democratic governor first mentioned his intention Tuesday in a meeting with reporters and editors at the Journal Inquirer, which published his remarks Wednesday.

His comments, especially a personal swipe at the legislature's Republican minority leaders, generated immediate criticism from House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, and the GOP leaders, Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk and Sen. John McKinney of Fairfield.

Andrew Doba, the communication director for Malloy, said the governor felt an opportunity for significant gun control was slipping away.

"At this critical juncture, in the wake of unspeakable tragedy in our own state, the governor believes that we cannot let the chance to affect real, positive change pass us by," Doba said. "He thinks we should act quickly and decisively to make Connecticut safer."


Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (file photo)

Based on past comments, Malloy is expected to propose a ban on high-capacity magazines, universal background checks for all firearm purchases and, most likely, a stronger ban on firearms defined as assault weapons.

A state assault-weapons ban passed in 1993 has proved porous, as evidenced by the legal purchase of the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle used by Adama Lanza in his attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, killing 26 students and staff.

With legislative leaders saying they are days or even weeks away from knowing if the bipartisan process will succeed or fail, it was unclear what prompted Malloy to act now, other than he was asked at the Journal Inquirer. While the governor's staff has been working on a package of legislation, his comments were said to have caught his own staff by surprise.

"It's apparent to me that the legislature will not reach bipartisan consensus on this issue," Malloy told the newspaper.

The comments, which Malloy's staff confirmed, reflect a reversal for the governor, whose own reaction to Sandy Hook has been measured on the question of a legislative response.

Malloy quickly endorsed several gun-control measures, including expanded permitting and background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines. But he created a study commission with the charge of making interim recommendations in mid-March.

Doba said that commission will be given a new charge: It will be asked to continue developing policies and proposals on school safety and mental health, but the governor intends to narrow its focus regarding gun control.

"He just disregarded the work of his own task force and ours," Cafero said. "He just dissed all of us."

The legislature has assembled a bipartisan legislative task force to recommend legislation, with the original goal of voting on the first bill by the end of February.

Gun-control lobbyists had viewed the bipartisan process with reservations, fearing that it might produce legislation aimed at giving the greatest number of lawmakers something they could support, as opposed to the strongest possible restrictions.

"We would welcome the governor's voice in this debate and his willingess to outline a very aggressive agenda," said Betty Gallo, a lobbyist for Connecticut Against Gun Violence.

But Malloy did more than involve himself in a legislative process: Without naming them, he criticized Cafero and McKinney.

"I'm now looking at leaders bailing out on hearings or rallies and people coming to talk about their own personal pain instead of gun control at a gun control rally," Malloy told the Journal Inquirer.

Cafero declined to appear at a gun-control rally at the Capitol last week, and McKinney talked about the impact of the shooting, rather than endorse gun-control measures.

"I am not at all ashamed to say what happened that day has affected me personally and changed me," said McKinney, who represents Newtown and is friends with one of the surviving teachers.

On the day of the shooting, he was with Malloy at the firehouse in Newtown, where parents gathered to learn if their children had survived.

"I would never think of stooping as low as that comment," McKinney said.

"It's so petty. It's not befitting a governor," Cafero said.

Malloy's comments generated a mixed reaction from Democrats.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, welcomed the governor's plans to propose strong gun controls, while declining comment on Malloy's gibes at Cafero and McKinney.

"If you are looking for insight on that, you'll have to ask the governor about that," Williams said.

Williams said he agreed with the governor's statement that the legislative process must be accelerated.

"I read the governor's comments. I agree. I think the process should not be dragged out. We've had a productive bipartisan fact-gathering process, but now it's time to pass a strong bill. It's time to take action."

But Sharkey, the new House speaker, disagreed.

"I'm disappointed with the governor's comments," Sharkey said. "As I said before, the country is watching Connecticut to see how we react to this tragedy, and taking quick action is important, but taking smart action is more important. We are working deliberatively to be an example of how to come together on a bipartisan basis to address a very serious and complex issue.

"Our expectation was to act by the end of February or early March and we are still on that timeline."

Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CtMirrorPaz