No bipartisan consensus on gun control

A bipartisan task force on gun violence concluded its work Tuesday without consensus or clarity on how the General Assembly should change Connecticut gun laws in response to the massacre of 26 children and women at Sandy Hook.

Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate now plan to meet Wednesday to see if they can negotiate a bipartisan bill by gleaning elements from the separate recommendations produced by the two parties.

"We'll know in relatively short order whether we have a bipartisan agreement or not," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.

Looney Miner

Sen. Martin Looney (l) and Rep. Craig Miner: co-chairs issued two reports.

If not, the overwhelming Democratic majorities in the House and Senate probably still could pass new restrictions on the sale and possession of firearms, including a ban on large-capacity ammo magazines and an expansion of the state's 20-year-old ban on guns defined as assault weapons.

The meeting Tuesday was an anticlimactic end to a bipartisan effort launched with great fanfare on Jan. 15, a month and a day after Adam Lanza killed 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary, using a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle and 30-round magazines stolen from his mother.

Task force subcommittees on school security and mental health issues agreed on recommendations for legislation, and legislators expressed disappointment Tuesday that the gun panel could not do the same. All three subcommittees had equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.

[Read the Democratic report on guns and Republican report on guns]

[Read the bipartisan recommendations on school security and mental health]

"When I signed on to this job, I thought we'd reach some consensus," said Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, a leader of the sportsmen's caucus. He served as co-chairman of the gun subcommittee with one of the legislature's strongest gun-control advocates, Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven.

But Looney said gun control was the most controversial of the issues raised by Sandy Hook, and no one should be entirely surprised by the outcome.

"By the end of last week, things sort of gelled into the specifics of the two lists," Looney said. "We were actually encouraged by how much overlap there is."

The overlap included universal background checks, a gun offender registry, rules for safer gun storage, restricting ammunition sales to gun permit holders, and expanding background checks by requiring a closer look at the mental health history of gun purchasers.

The GOP declined to join Democrats in supporting a redefined assault weapon ban that would cover the sale of all types of AR-15s, nor would its members endorse a limiting the sale and ownership of magazines to no more than 10 rounds.

"When you look at it, what did it do to address what happened at Sandy Hook?" Betty Gallo, a lobbyist for a gun-control group, Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said of the GOP proposal. "Maybe storage. Other than that, it doesn't do anything."

The Republicans want to require that firearms be secured in a safe or lock box if someone prohibited from purchasing or possessing a gun, including someone who is "mentally defective," is likely to gain access.

Lanza, who had a history of emotional problems, killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, with her AR-15 at their Newtown home before attacking Sandy Hook Elementary School. Police have not said how Nancy Lanza stored her firearms.

Gun manufacturers easily circumvented the original assault weapon law, which prohibited the sale of some weapons by name and others by design elements. Semiautomatic rifles could not have more than one military characteristic, such as a pistol grip, flash suppressor or bayonet lug.

But gun makers produced Connecticut-compliant models that kept the iconic pistol grip, but eliminated other military features. The Bushmaster AR-15 used by Lanza was legally purchased in Connecticut by his mother, Nancy Lanza.

Democrats on Tuesday endorsed a definition that banned the sale of any semiautomatic with one of several enumerated military characteristic, the same definition proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

But it would not ban the manufacture of such weapons, a profitable item now produced in Connecticut by Colt, one of the most-famous names in firearms, and by the lesser-known Stag Arms. Stag produces about 72,000 AR-15s annually.

Both companies have been approached by other states about relocating.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, offered a preview of an eventual floor debate by asking what would Connecticut be saying by allowing the manufacture of AR-15s and large-capacity magazines, while banning their retail sale?

"I have strong misgivings," Kissel said.

Six top leaders of the General Assembly are expected to meet Wednesday afternoon to determine if they can agree on a bipartisan bill, which could be passed as early as next week, before the three-month anniversary of Sandy Hook.

Those leaders are Democrats Williams, Looney, House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden, and House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin, and two ranking Republicans, House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield.

Cafero voted for the original assault weapon ban in 1993 and a revised version in 2004. McKinney, who wasn't elected until 1998, voted for the 2004 law and has supported other gun-control measures.

But an unresolved question is how strongly will Cafero and McKinney push for a bipartisan bill that could be supported by the greatest possible number of Republicans. Newtown is represented by McKinney in the Senate and by three Republicans in the House.

Gallo and Robert Crook, a lobbyist for gun owners, agreed on one thing Tuesday: the bipartisan process left everyone uncertain of what will happen next.

"I'm really hoping they will do a comprehensive bill," Gallo said. "It's almost the three-month anniversary, and it's time."

Crook said he supported a proposal to require background checks on every firearms sale, but he objected to suggestions by both parties that the sale of rifles and shotguns require a fingerprint check.

"Probably less than two percent of crimes are committed with long guns," Crook said. "So why are we imposing all this stuff on legitimate gun owners?"

Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CtMirrorPaz