Updated 5:36 p.m.
Washington – As part of a ramped-up gun safety campaign, Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty have asked the Connecticut Food Association to implement a gun "open carry" ban in the state’s retail stores.
“Customers should feel safe while shopping, and employees should not be fearful while doing their jobs. You have the opportunity to take a strong stance in support of creating a safe, welcoming environment in Connecticut’s food retailer,” the lawmakers wrote to Connecticut Food Association President Wayne Pesce.
Connecticut law allows for those with permits for handguns to carry them openly in supermarkets and other public establishments. But those establishments have the legal authority to ban firearms on their premises and some have, including Chipotle, Panera Bread, Starbucks and Whole Foods.
“There is simply no reason someone would need to bring their gun with them in order to purchase milk, bread or other necessities at a grocery store,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement.
The Connecticut Food Association, which has 240 member companies who operate about 300 retail food stores and pharmacies in Connecticut, issued a statement in response to the lawmakers' letter late Friday that implied it was up to individual members to set policy.
“The Connecticut Food Association places the health and safety of its members, their employees and customers – and the public at large – first and foremost. We take their safety very seriously, and also recognize the importance of operating under existing state laws,” said Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association. “Recognizing this is a passionate issue on all sides, the Connecticut Food Association is working with its membership and national affiliates to create and share best practice policies so our members can make informed decisions.”
The Connecticut Citizens Defense League, said the lawmakers were overstepping their authority by meddling in state gun legislation and should concentrate on fixing Washington instead, "because it needs it."
"Instead of concerning themselves with federal issues, they are using the federal government letterhead to harass a state level association (Connecticut Food Association)," the CCDL said in a statement. "This is a bully tactic that is being deployed by legislators that in reality have little to say about Connecticut state laws... Esty, Blumenthal and Murphy are actually trying to circumvent existing state law by forcing retailers into enacting a policy that dictates the manner in which law-abiding citizens can carry firearms."
The CCDL also said it wanted to remind the lawmakers there are nearly 250,000 legal gun owners in Connecticut.
Blumenthal and Murphy are also the main sponsors of a bill in the Senate this week that would repeal a 2005 law shielding the gun industry from liability.
That law, promoted by the National Rifle Association, protects gun makers and dealers from lawsuits when crimes are committed with their weapons.
It also protects “straw purchasers” who buy firearms in bulk and sell them, sometimes without running a background check on a prospective buyer. And it shields trade associations like the NRA.
NRA President Wayne LaPierre called the “Protection of Local Commerce in Arms Act” the “most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in 20 years.”
The “Equal Justice for Gun Violence Victims Act” would repeal the PLCAA.
“Victims of law-breaking gun makers and dealers deserve a day in court – fair rights and remedies restored by this measure,” Blumenthal said. “Alone among all industries, guns are protected by a near absolute wall of legal immunity that bars the courthouse doors to victims.”
Murphy said, “making the gun industry immune from lawsuits effectively handed them a license to kill."
NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said the new bill is an attempt by "anti-gun politicians exploiting crime victims to push a gun-control agenda."
"This is an attempt to sue companies engaged in a legal business into bankruptcy," she said. "You can't sue General Motors if a car is used to commit a crime, and you shouldn't be able to sue a firearm company if a firearm is used to commit a crime."
In a statement, the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation said, “It’s unfortunate and a great disservice to the public that the senators sponsoring this legislation are choosing to distort the facts and demagogue the issue of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was passed on an overwhelming bipartisan basis and does not provide blanket liability protection for the firearms industry, no matter how many times they may say it.”
“It does provide protection against the frivolous and politically motivated lawsuits of the kind these senators apparently favor because they have decided to use us as a surrogate enemy instead of being tougher on criminals who misuse guns,” the foundation said.
The senators' bill, and a similar one backed by Esty in the House, are not expected to win approval in the GOP-controlled Congress.
But gun liability has become an issue in the Democratic race for the White House. Hillary Clinton, then a senator representing New York, voted against the PLCAA. Her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, voted for it.
On Thursday, Sanders shifted his position. He agreed to co-sponsor the Equal Justice for Gun Violence Victims Act.
This story was updated at 5:36 p.m. with statements from the Connecticut Food Association and the Connecticut Citizens Defense League.