A coalition of 28 gun-control groups in Connecticut marked the anniversary of a legislative victory – bipartisan passage of a sweeping gun law in response to the Newtown massacre – by promising Thursday to protect their allies from political defeat this fall.
On the spot where Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the bill into law at the State Capitol, the groups announced they will form a super PAC to defend the 26 senators and 105 representatives who passed the legislation and governor who signed it in response to one of the nation’s worst mass shootings.
“This will be the greatest ever collaboration of these Connecticut groups,” said Ron Pinciaro, the executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence. “We are united in our commitment.”
Whether the coalition can develop the strategy, resources and capabilities to turn out voters in Connecticut is untested. Nationally, gun owners have outmuscled gun-control advocates at the polls, most notably in Colorado, where two Democratic senators who played critical roles in passing state gun laws were ousted in special elections last year.
The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending, said gun-rights groups led by the NRA have cowed Congress with more than $30 million in individual, PAC and soft-money contributions since 1989, mostly to Republicans. In 2010 and 2012, they spent at least another $41 million in independent expenditures.
“Gun control groups, by comparison, have been barely a blip on the radar screen,” according to an analysis by the center. “They’ve given a total of just under $2 million since 1989, of which 94 percent has gone to Democrats. In the 2012 election cycle, they gave only $5,000.”
Gun owners are holding a rally Saturday at the State Capitol, but there are no serious efforts to repeal or revise the Newtown law in the 2014 session of the General Assembly, which ends at midnight May 7. Their greater focus is on the election.
One gun group, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, has added hundreds of new members every month since passage. Its membership now is more than 12,000. But like the gun-control advocates, their ability to elect allies is unclear.
As its numbers have grown, the group has not collected voter registration information or other data that could make their membership list a campaign asset.
Rep. Sam Belsito, R-Tolland, who won a special election in June, gave gun owners credit for his winning a seat that had long been in Democratic hands. NRA members were part of a coalition that helped elect former Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, in a special election in 2011, but Suzio could not hold onto the seat.
Betty Gallo, a lobbyist for Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said all 131 legislators who voted for the Newtown gun law were invited to the announcement Thursday. No Republican showed up, a sign of the divisions over guns among GOP voters, even in Connecticut.
Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, and House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, each played prominent roles in the passage of the bill, which bans the sale of large-capacity magazines and military-style weapons like the AR-15 used in the massacre.
Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. of Brooklyn and House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden, both Democrats, saluted their GOP counterparts for their leadership, saying each faced a harsher backlash than others responsible for passage.
“I don’t think the public fully grasped how easy it would have been for the two sides of this debate, and by sides I really mean in a partisan way, how easy it would have been for Republicans to go one way and Democrats to go another way,” Sharkey said.
The state Senate vote was 26-10, with 20 of 22 Democrats and six of 14 Republicans in support. The House vote was 105-44, with 85 of 99 Democrats and 20 of 52 Republicans in support.
One of the six Republicans running to succeed Malloy is McKinney, who represents Newtown. As the candidate most closely identified with the Newtown law, McKinney has been dogged by gun owners at campaign events.
Malloy attended the announcement.
“Gov. Malloy is a person of courage,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, whose friends lost a daughter in the attack. “He is a person of persistence, and he easily is a person who cares. That’s what a leader is, not always popular.”
Malloy said the state is safer for the Newtown law. Retail sales of the AR-15 and certain other semiautomatic weapons are banned, as are magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. The state has expanded background checks and the permitting process.
“No guns in Connecticut can be sold without a background check. No one in our state is able to walk into a store in our state and buy a rifle without an extensive permitting process,” Malloy said.
No relatives of the 20 children or six adults killed at Newtown attended the event, but several have been active in lobbying the General Assembly and Congress.