Vote planned Wednesday on sweeping gun-violence bill

The General Assembly's leadership finalized a bipartisan response Monday to the Sandy Hook school massacre, scheduling a vote Wednesday on a sweeping gun-violence bill that imposes new restrictions on the purchase and ownership of firearms and ammunition in Connecticut.

After weeks of negotiations, the deal will create the nation's first gun-offender registry, require universal background checks for all gun purchases and ban the sale of large-capacity ammo magazines like the ones used to kill 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook.

The bill falls short on a key provision sought by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and families of the victims, who wanted a ban on the possession of magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds, not just their future sale.

McKinney Sharkey Williams

Sen. John McKinney, Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr.

In a compromise, magazines now legally owned will have to be registered with the state.

"We're satisfied," said Ron Pinciaro, executive director of a gun-control lobbying group, Connecticut Against Gun Violence. "We think they did the best job they could based on the political realities."

The Malloy administration had no comment on the compromise, other than referring to a statement issued earlier in the day supporting the call by Newtown families for a ban on the possession of the magazines: "I have been clear for weeks that a ban on the possession and sale of high capacity magazines is an important part of our effort to prevent gun violence -- simply banning their sale moving forward would not be an effective solution."

The Senate is expected to begin debate late Wednesday morning, with final passage by the House of Representatives some time that evening, putting to rest for 2013 an issue that subjected legislators to a massive grass-roots lobbying effort that paralyzed the General Assembly.

In a joint press conference, leaders of both parties said no further gun legislation is anticpated this session, though lawmakers are open to further action addressing school security and mental health issues.

The conference had a celebratory tone, with Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, asserting that the deal had yielded the "strongest and most comprehensive gun bill in the United States."

Others contrasted the bipartisan agreement with the gridlock in Washington.

"I think many doubted whether we would be able to reach this point," said House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden. "This is the way to get this job done."

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said everyone knew on Dec. 14 that a strong legislative response to Sandy was inevitable.

"Knowing that that incident, that tragedy happened in Connecticut, it was up to Connecticut to show the way," Cafero said.

Democrats hold nearly a 2-1 majority in the legislature, so the bipartisan approach was a surprise.

Cafero said the legislation would have substantial support among House Republicans, but he declined to be more specific. Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said about half the GOP caucus in the Senate would vote for the bill.

Leaders said the legislation will expand the state's 20-year-old assault weapons law, applying the ban to an estimated 100 new weapons. It creates a new crime of the illegal possession of ammunition, so that anyone ineligible to possess a firearm cannot possess ammunition.

Only a summary of the package was released, not legislative language. Cafero said the assault-weapons language would focus on function, not cosmetics.

An element of the compromise is a modification barring violent offenders from the "Risk Reducation Earned Credit Program," which allows some inmates to earn a maximum of five days a month off their sentence. The program was an issue in the 2012 campaigns for the legislature.

Robert Crook, who represents sportsmen at the Capitol, said most of the legislation would be a burden to sports shooters, while doing little for public safety.

"Some of it we can agree with," Crook said. "Some of it, it's so onerous I'm not sure what kind of participation that they are going to get."

Crook said the universal background checks, even for private sales, were a good idea, even though they are opposed by the National Rifle Association.

But a provision to raise the age for buying a rifle from 18 to 21, the minimum age to purchase a handgun, might discourage the next generation of hunters.

The Democratic and Republican caucuses of the House and Senate met simultaneously Monday afternoon, reviewing legislation crafted by their leaders while facing questions about why Connecticut could not move faster on gun-violence legislation after the horrific attack Dec. 14.

"I think they did an excellent job in crafting a bipartisan agreement. It's more far-reaching, more aggressive than I thought it would be," said Rep. Patricia Widlitz, D-Guilford.

Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, said he'd hoped for a "more assertive" proposal on existing magazines, but he still praised the compromise.

"I'm comfortable with it. I understand that we're anxious to do a bipartisan bill and, considering where so very many people started, this is a satisfactory place to end up," he said.

Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, who is co-chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said the caucus went well, and leaders plan to call a vote for Wednesday.

Families of Newtown victims made a last effort earlier Monday to lobby for a strict ban on the possession of large-capacity magazines, asking for an up or down vote. They declined to comment when it became clear that the compromise bill would fall short of their request.

In a letter delivered to leaders, the families of 11 of the 26 victims said they think that 11 children escaped while Adam Lanza was inserting a fresh 30-round magazine in his Bushmaster XM15 rifle, making an emotional case for banning the possession of magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds.

"We ask ourselves every day, every minute: If those magazines had held 10 rounds, forcing the shooter to reload at least six more times, would our children be alive today?" said Nicole Hockley, whose son, Dylan, was one of 20 children killed. "So please hear us. Have the courage to stand up for what you know is right."

The emergency legislation is a response to one of the nation's worst mass shootings. Police say Lanza fired 154 rounds from a version of the AR-15, the nation's best-selling rifle, in less than five minutes, killing six educators and 20 first-graders in two classrooms. He killed himself as police arrived.

The legislation also addresses the related issues of school security and mental health. It requires the state insurance department to evaluate and report on its method for determining compliance with state and federal laws regarding coverage of mental health treatment.

It establishes a School Safety Infrastructure Council that will develop safety standards for school building projects, setting a deadline of Jan. 1, 2014, for the initial standards.

The bill reauthorizes the school security infrastructure grant program, which will initially be funded with a bond allocation of $15 million.