A far-reaching package of gun-violence legislation in response to the Sandy Hook school massacre is widely seen as inevitable in the General Assembly, with legislative leaders saying Wednesday night their goal is a vote by the end of March with or without a bipartisan deal.
In separate interviews, Democratic and Republican leaders said they are progressing toward bipartisan legislation addressing gun, school security and mental health issues arising from the murders of 26 children and women at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
They acknowledged pressure to resolve an issue that has nearly paralyzed the legislature.
“I think there is a general consensus — let’s get this done quickly,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. “Let’s put this issue to bed.”
House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said passage by the end of March is attainable, but the scope of the legislation requires significant work.
“Whether the bill is bipartisan or not, there still is a tremendous amount of intricacies in drafting language,” McKinney said.
Until passage, legislators expect to be under siege.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy egged on gun-control advocates to keep up their daily grass-roots pressure on legislators Wednesday, and Colt’s Manufacturing was preparing another lobbying blitz by its employees Thursday in an uphill fight to head off a broader assault weapons ban.
A bipartisan consensus is emerging — in concept, if not necessarily in specifics — on legislation that would restrict the sales of military-style rifles and large-capacity magazines, according to those familiar with continuing negotiations by Democratic and Republican leaders.
The leaders declined to describe specifics of the negotiations, but they acknowledged a growing desire to bring an emergency bill or bills to a vote.
“I’m feeling optimistic that we’re going to come to a consensus,” Sharkey said.
“There is momentum toward doing a strong bill,” Looney said.
The leaders did not meet Wednesday, but Cafero said they exchanged legislative language on one of the contested isssues. He declined to say which one.
Others say the two parties continue to haggle over language relating to restrictions on military-style rifles and ammo magazines. A number of GOP legislators, for example, are willing to ban future sales of large-capacity magazines, but they are opposed to a law that would force owners to surrender magazines they now own.
Supporters of a ban argue that magazines, unlike firearms, have no serial numbers, so telling a pre-ban magazine from a post-ban one would be impossible. They insist on banning possession, as well as future sales.
A bipartisan consensus is unnecessary for passage — or even to circumvent a protracted review of gun legislation by the legislature’s committees that could delay action until April or May. All that is required to place an emergency bill directly before the House or Senate is the signatures of the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem, Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.
One possible approach is a package of emergency legislation, including two gun bills and a separate measure on school security and mental health. One gun bill would cover consensus items, such as universal background checks for all gun purchases, while the other would include the bans and other more controversial provisions.
“Let’s do it all in one day,” Cafero said. “There is no need to do it all in one bill.”
With another poll this week showing strong public support for tighter restrictions on the sale of guns, legislators and staffers in both parties say momentum is on the side of gun control.
Connecticut Against Gun Violence, a lobbying group that had 6,000 members on Dec. 13, the day before 26 children and women were killed in Newtown, says its membership grew to 20,000 by the Valentine’s Day march on the State Capitol and has doubled again in the past month.
“This is a presence that never existed before,” said Betty Gallo, a longtime lobbyist on gun control. “We’re seeing more people join every day, mainly people who have not done this before.”
Last year, Gallo struggled to persuade more than a half-dozen legislators to back a ban on large-capacity ammo magazines like the 30-round ones Adam Lanza would use at Sandy Hook Elementary School when he killed 20 first-graders and six educators with an AR-15, a semiautomatic rifle with a military look and pedigree.
Now, there is little doubt that the General Assembly will restrict Connecticut gun owners to magazines with no more than 10 rounds, one of a number of new gun-control measures that lobbyists and lawmakers say is inevitable, despite concerns that Connecticut did not lead the push for new legislation after Newtown.
Rep. Stephen D. Dargan, D-West Haven, who arrived in Hartford in 1991, the tumultuous year that the General Assembly adopted a broad-based income tax, said he has never seen such passion around an issue — and such pressure on lawmakers.
“Nothing comes close,” Dargan said.
The National Rifle Association and the firearms industry filled the Legislative Office Building on Monday with gun owners, some opposed to any new gun restrictions — a battle that even some allies of gun owners concede is lost — and others asking legislators to limit themselves to universal background checks for gun purchases.
They are expected to return in force Thursday, when the Public Safety Committee, which is co-chaired by Dargan, is holding a hearing on 11 firearms bills. Colt is planning to bus at least 400 employees from its West Hartford plant to the LOB for a rally and to lobby legislators not to ban its fast-selling version of the AR-15 rifle.
But according to those familiar with lobbying pitches to legislators, much of the firearms industry seems to be falling back toward a single goal of blocking a total ban on the retail sale of military-style weapons such as the AR-15 — a rifle produced by Colt and two other companies in Connecticut, Stag Arms and O.F. Mossberg & Sons.
But Malloy, Williams and Sharkey all are on record as supporting a strict ban. And the Republican leadership in Connecticut, unlike in Congress, is no reliable ally of the gun industry or NRA in fighting gun controls.
Cafero and McKinney, the two GOP leaders, each have voted in the past for an assault weapons ban.
Cafero voted for the original law in 1993 and revisions in 2001. McKinney, who took office in 1999, voted for the revisions. He also has co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, that would ban the possession of magazines of more than 10 rounds.
The political and public-relations challenge facing the industry is clear from the 10 words that Malloy used Wednesday in reference to the AR-15. He called it “the gun used to kill 20 babies and six adults.”
Malloy has proposed broadening the state’s 20-year-old assault weapons law to ban the retail sale of any semiautomatic rifle with a single military characteristic, such as a pistol grip, collapsible stock, flash suppressor or bayonet lug.
The definition would ban the sale of every known variation of the AR-15. The current version of the law is sufficiently loose that Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, was able to legally purchase in Connecticut the rifle used by her son.
Malloy dismissed concerns Wednesday about the impact of a broader assault weapons ban on Connecticut manufacturers, or that it will trigger an exodus.
“We’re not asking them to leave,” Malloy said. “On the other hand I believe, ultimately, we’re going to toughen our gun safety laws.”
Malloy said he agreed with the coalition of gun-control groups who came to the LOB Wednesday, complaining that no gun law has passed in Connecticut since Newtown. But he also resisted the notion he could make legislators move more quickly.
“Do I think the people of Connecticut have waited long enough? The answer is yes, I do think they’ve waited long enough,” Malloy said. “On the other hand, I’m not the legislature, and I’ll leave it in their hands.”
Malloy spoke to reporters at his monthly press conference after State Bond Commission meeting, which tend to be more theatrical than most of his encounters with the media. He addresses reporters in the atrium of the LOB, typically drawing a crowd.
He smiled when a reporter told him that gun-control supporters wanted him to drop the hammer on the legislature.
“If I dropped a hammer, it’s more likely to hit my foot than it is anything in the legislature,” Malloy said.
Malloy was ready to leave when he was asked if he had any advice for the gun-control camp’s efforts to force a vote.
“I think they should be here today, tomorrow, Friday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,” Malloy said.
Malloy repeated the days of the week three times, his amplified words booming through the atrium, an unwelcome suggestion to legislators.
Wednesday night, leaders said they did not think a full three weeks of lobbying would be necessary.
Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CtMirrorPaz