See update at bottom of story
Resigned to defeat for now, hundreds of gun owners descended Wednesday on the Connecticut General Assembly to launch the next wave in a long-running battle to preserve firearm ownership rights.
Arriving on buses sponsored by the National Rifle Association, sportsmen and gun enthusiasts from across Connecticut packed the halls of the Capitol, chanting and heckling legislators as they arrived to debate gun-control measures expected to pass with bipartisan support later today.
The boistrous scene prompted Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who intends to sign the bill as soon as it reaches his desk, to cancel an appearance at an autism awareness event in the Capitol’s Old Judiciary Room, rather than walk the halls.
“When the governor’s security detail makes a decision on an event, we don’t question that determination,” said Andrew Doba, his spokesman. “We have no further comment.”
Capitol police, citing past demonstrations, said they expect as many as 1,000 protestors would visit the building as lawmakers planned to vote 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 measure also would 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 the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Magazines now legally owned will have to be registered with the state — a provision expected to draw particular ire from gun owners.
“Today’s only the beginning,” said Warren Stevens, 58, of Southington, an NRA member who didn’t let recent leg surgery and crutches stop him from coming to Hartford.
“I think you’ll see plenty of lawsuits and injunctions,” said Stevens, who wore a sign that read “Shall not be infringed.”
Those are the last four words to the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Many gun owners at the Capitol expressed frustration that the bill had only been released Wednesday morning, giving legislators and the public little time to review it.
“Read the bill!” gun rights supporters standing outside the Senate chamber chanted around 10:15 a.m. as a lawmaker walked by. It was Sen. Joe Markley, a Southington Republican.
“He’s voting no!” someone yelled.
Cheers erupted. “Thank you!” some people yelled.
Raymond Courier, 74 of Prospect, said those who expect rioting and irresponsible behavior from gun owners will be disappointed.
“I’m here to defend the Constitution,” he said, predicting plenty of verbal protests and well-organized demonstrations. “That’s what we’re here for.”
“I’m appalled at what’s going on today. I’m disgusted with my legislators,” Stevens said, adding he expects many people came to the Capitol on Wednesday to deliver that same message. “We’ll see how they do come re-election time.”
“It’s a decidedly blue state and lately, over the past decade or two, I’ve come to realize that legislators don’t consider what their constituents want,” said Thomas Smith, 67, of Cromwell.
“I want to sound an alarm that this is just the beginning of the erosion of the Constitution,” said Alan Konisberg, 70, an attorney from Weston. “They [legislators] should obey the law and not defy it.”
Konisberg said he also expects the gun control measure would spark many new candidates, opposed to the legislation, to run for the General Assembly in 2014.
Not a hunter, Konisberg said both he and his wife enjoy target shooting, and always treat the variety of hand and long guns they own responsibly.
Bob Crook, executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, said the bill would only affect law-abiding gun owners.
“What’s really onerous is it attacks law-abiding gun owners, makes them the villains in this whole incident, and we’re not at fault,” Crook said. “And whatever they pass here today on firearms is not going to preclude and would not have precluded Sandy Hook. So it’s a worthless bill.”
Crook noted that Nancy Lanza legally purchased the guns her son, Adam, used in the Sandy Hook massacre.
“We have thousands of people in this building right now who own the same gun,” he said. “They’re not going out and killing people and they’re certainly not giving them to deranged people.”
Law-abiding gun owners are being scapegoated, Stevens said, because neither the legislature nor the community in Newtown are ready to focus on the mental illness issues that have been long-ignored in Connecticut.
Lawmakers should focus on mental health, stopping violent video games, and asking whether the community in Newtown did all it could to help Adam Lanza.
“Adam Lanza, the killer, did not appear out of thin air,” Stevens said, adding the community was aware that the young man had mental health issues. “Nobody got him help. Everybody turned a blind eye to the kid down the street.”
“We feel that our rights are being infringed upon over the actions of an individual and the shooter’s mother, who was also part of this by being a lax gun owner,” said Paul Regish from East Hartford, who has been an NRA member for five years.
Roger Mitchell of Oakville stood at the front of the Legislative Office Building while gun-right supporters streamed in. He said he hoped lawmakers could still be influenced, although he said most had their minds made up.
Mitchell said he owns one weapon that would become illegal under the proposal. He said he wasn’t sure what he would do about it if the bill passes.
“All of a sudden my gun’s illegal. Now I’ve got to register. It’s wrong,” he said. “I went through the hoops. In Connecticut, you have to go through the local police, you have to get fingerprinted, have a background investigation. You’ve got to go through the state police. Your fingerprints follow you. They do an investigation. From there it goes to the FBI and then you get your pistol permit. I mean, how much more do they want? Give some blood too?”
By contrast, Mitchell said, there’s a young man in his neighborhood who sells heroin and has a gun in his car and keeps getting released shortly after being arrested. “He gets to keep a .45 caliber gun in his car being a felon, and I can’t keep a 20-round clip?” Mitchell said.
Andrea Ray of West Hartford was one of a tiny minority in the crowd, supporters of the gun control bill. She held a small handwritten sign that said “CT vote yes Lead the nation!” and wore a green shirt and scarf — the color of Sandy Hook Elementary.
“It seems to me these people are frightened that they can’t protect their families,” she said of the gun-rights supporters surrounding her.
Ray is from England and said she worries that the U.S. is a nation where people feel they need so much protection. “I don’t have a need in the UK to have a gun or to feel that I need to protect my family, so I think there’s a bigger discussion to have.”
Despite their disagreements, Ray said the gun control supporters around her had been cordial. One, Garnet Drakiotes of South Windsor, came over to thank her for coming.
Drakiotes said he believed there should be more dialogue between the two sides, especially before legislation gets passed. “I just think we’re rushing down a path,” he said. “It’s very impactful for the gun owners. Extremely impactful.”
“Something needs to happen,” Ray said.
“None of us want any more dead children,” Drakiotes said.
If the bill passes, Drakiotes said, the weapon he carries daily for self-defense would become illegal.
“No disrespect to you, but I come from a nation where people don’t feel a need to carry a weapon,” Ray said.
“That’s because your rights were stripped from you years ago,” said Phil Balestriere, a Stamford gun owner.
They discussed rights and anarchy. “I don’t understand this real passion for guns,” Ray said.
“I never wanted guns, but I like guns now because they threaten to take them away,” Balestriere said. He said he didn’t touch a gun for years after he left the Marine Corps in 1978, but now owns plenty because of the threat that his right to own them could be taken away.
Kevin and Leah Carrier of Farmington brought two of their three young sons to the Capitol. Kevin Carrier said he feared for his rights and believed it was his duty as a parent to show up at the Capitol. Not that he thought it would change the outcome of the vote. He figured the bill would pass. So why show up?
“Honestly, to say that I tried,” he said. “I love Connecticut. I was born here. I think it’s been headed down the wrong path.”
“I believe in the Constitution, so I think that this is the only thing I can do,” he said.
The bill would make weapons Carrier owns illegal. He said he’d follow the law when it passes.
Don and Marie Barnum of Salisbury left their home at 5:30 a.m. to drive to Cabela’s, where they caught a bus to the Capitol. Don Barnum collects antique firearms and has others to hunt with, all currently legal.
Marie Barnum read a print-out of the bill as they stood on the fourth floor of the Capitol hours before the debate was to begin.
Under the bill, Barnum noted that buying or selling a large-capacity magazine would be a class D felony, the same level of crime as some types of sexual assault. “Resources will be taken away from someone who has been sexually assaulted to prosecute someone who made an honest mistake,” he said.
“I think the ban on assault weapons is ludicrous. Period. And the high capacity magazines, there is no reason to ban them,” Regish said. “There’s guys I know who can shoot up a clip of 10 and have another one in there in less than five seconds and shoot them again.”
Regish added that if he gets any newsletters to protest again, he will be there.
Ron Pariseau from Pomfret joined the NRA two weeks ago because he feels his rights are being infringed upon. “his government forced me to join,” he said.
Pariseau also argued that legislators are focusing too much on gun control instead of mental illness and increased law enforcement in urban areas.
Wednesday was the first time has ever protested.
“I have a gun that I’ve owned for 32 years, it’s a 15-round magazine,” Pariseau said. “Its never ever hurt anybody. Why? Because it’s in the hands of a person who cares and takes care of it and is a good gun owner. You put it in the hands of a mentally ill person and it’s going to hurt somebody.”
But many protestors at the Capitol on Wednesday were wary of discussing the guns they own.
“If people knew what we own, we would be a target” for theft or confiscation,” Courier, said.
“Why would I want to give someone that information? It’s a privacy thing,” Smith added.
Several of those interviewed Wednesday morning noted that after The Journal News of Westchester, N.Y., published a map in December showing the addresses of local pistol permit holders, some local gun owners’ homes were burglarized. The editor of The Journal News disputes this, however. (See update at bottom of story.)
Gun stores in Newington were also packed Wednesday morning, while many of their shelves are bare.
Miguel Acevedo, a gun owner from Meriden, took off work Wednesday so he could stock up on things that will soon be illegal to purchase.
“This was a last minute thing. I had to get here before they banned this stuff,” he said, holding up three 30-round magazines he just purchased. “The bill has a couple of good points, but in the end it is just going to criminalize us. It’s not right.”
Staff reporter Jacqueline Rabe Thomas contributed to this article.
Update: An earlier version of this story did not include the comment from the editor of The News Journal. Editor CynDee Royle said in a call Thursday that, “No homes were burglarized that we know of” as a result of the publication of the map.