One was a Korean War veteran suffering flashbacks. Another was an old man who kicked his neighbors’ trash cans into the street and ranted at passing traffic. Some had spoken of violence against themselves or others in the face of foreclosure, divorce or illness.
All had one thing in common. Their firearms were among 2,093 seized by police under a law passed swiftly in reaction to a mass shooting: the killings of four senior executives at Connecticut Lottery in 1998 by a disgruntled employee.
Now, as the state mourns 20 first-graders and six educators killed in last week’s assault on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, legislators are once again reviewing Connecticut’s long and complicated relationship with guns and gun control.
Was there a law that could have kept a high-powered, semi-automatic rifle fitted with a 30-round magazine from the hands of Adam Lanza, 20, the Newtown killer? And would it have made a difference, since he also carried two semi-automatic handguns?
“Connecticut’s gun-seizure law, which is unique in the nation and has been used hundreds of times, has clearly saved lives,” said Attorney General George Jepsen, who advocated gun control as a legislator. “But for it to be triggered, someone has to pull the alarm. That clearly did not happen in this instance.”
State legislators — some veterans of gun-control battles, others fervent new recruits mobilized by the horror of Sandy Hook — are rallying around a desire to enact new restrictions. Behind the scenes, gun-control advocates are counseling against haste, urging lawmakers to be comprehensive and ambitious — to reach for measures that might become a national model.
If the past is any guide, devising and passing effective gun control measures will face political, cultural and technical challenges.
Gun control never has come easily in Connecticut, despite its relatively tough gun laws and reputation as a liberal bastion, a place where gay marriage is legal, abortion rights are codified in state law, Democrats dominate state government and President Obama won by 18 points.
The U.S. firearms industry was largely invented here. Storied names like Colt, Remington, Winchester, Mossberg, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. still carry weight, though the industry’s employment in the state has shrunk.
According to a 2010 Census survey, 11 companies that produce small arms, ammunition or accessories employed 1,214 workers with an annual payroll of $62.4 million. The industry employed more than 6,000 in the 1970s, when Colt was turning out M-16s during the Vietnam War.
Sportsmen and gun collectors are well-organized, as legislators learned in 2011, when they tried to ban large capacity magazines like the ones that would be used to quickly kill the children and educators at Sandy Hook. Opposition at a Judiciary Committee public hearing was heated and overwhelming. The bill would have banned magazines of more than 10 rounds.
“Their rhetoric may have been intimidating. I thought it was rather immature and unseemly, but it had its effect,” said Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, co-chairman of the panel. “I think there were member of the committee who, if not turned around, they were at least moved to ask, ‘Why do we have to do this now?’ “
No one is asking that question today.
But other questions remain: What are meaningful restrictions — on firearms and, now, possibly on violent video games — that can be translated into law? And how can the discussion on guns be integrated with a look at mental health, all while keeping in mind that mass shootings are an anomaly?
Connecticut already has the fifth-strongest gun laws in the nation, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and it has the third lowest rate of per-capita gun deaths.
Those are statistics sportsmen and the gun lobby trumpet.
“We have some of the best gun control laws,” said Robert Crook, the face of the gun lobby in the state as director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen. “Sportsmen are in favor of gun control that prohibits criminals from getting firearms. We don’t want to be known as the bad guys. We want to be known as the good guys. We are not the problem.”
How is the Bushmaster not banned?
The technical challenge of gun restrictions was made starkly clear by Lanza’s use of an AR-15 manufactured by Bushmaster Firearms in Illion, N.Y., to shoot his way into the locked school at Sandy Hook.
It was legally purchased in Connecticut by Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, whom he shot to death at their home in Newtown before leaving for Sandy Hook dressed in black battle gear, carrying the Bushmaster and the two expensive handguns, a Glock and a Sig Sauer.
Legislators thought they had outlawed the sale and possession of the AR-15 with the passage in 1993 of a state assault weapons ban, a flawed law that sharply divided the legislature. It passed the Senate on a tie vote broken by the presiding officer; a procedural effort to stop it in the House failed on a similar tie vote.
“I am always perplexed by the definition of assault weapon in the state of Connecticut,” said Coleman, a lawyer whose son recently became a police officer in Hartford, part of his district. “The Bushmaster, whatever it is, is not on our list of banned assault weapons? How could that be?”
One answer lies in the changing nature of weapons design and nomenclature.
Assault weapons, at least in the civilian market, bring to mind Justice Potter Stewart’s struggle over banning pornography. He knew it when he saw it, but writing a definition, well, that was more difficult.
There is widespread agreement on how to define a classic military assault rifle, such the AK-47 or M-16. A key element is a selective fire option, allowing fully automatic, burst or semiautomatic fire with one pull of the trigger. But fully automatic weapons already are banned as machine guns under most circumstances by federal law.
So, what is a civilian assault weapon?
The Connecticut assault weapons ban passed in 1993 and expanded in 2001 outlaws weapons with the selective fire option, and the law lists specific weapons. It also tries to give a broader definition, naming common characteristics of assault weapons, such as a folding stock, flash suppressor and bayonet lug.
The Colt AR-15 and Colt Sporter are banned, as is a “Bushmaster Auto Rifle.”
On Internet gun forums, it is easy to find questions about whether a Bushmaster AR-15 is illegal, since it is not marketed as a “Bushmaster Auto Rifle.” Often, the answer is a suggestion to make a minor modification, such as swapping out a barrel for one without a bayonet lug or suppressor.
Michael P. Lawlor, who advises Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on criminal justice issues after a long career as the House co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Connecticut’s historical approach has been to acknowledge the right to bear arms, balanced against public safety.
The state requires a permit and background check to buy handguns. No permit is required to buy, possess or carry long guns. Other state laws require gun owners to report stolen guns and to secure their weapons in homes with children.
“I think what we’ve tried to promote over the last 20 years in Connecticut is that you have a right to own a gun as long as you are responsible,” Lawlor said.
Gun and sports culture
Even in densely populated Connecticut, hunting and target shooting are popular, with gun and rod clubs still a vital part of small-town life, culture and politics. In fact, the National Shooting Sports Foundation is based in Newtown, not far from Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“When you think of Connecticut and its 169 towns, you have to think of 100 of them as being small towns,” said Rep. Pamela Sawyer, R-Bolton. “In the small towns, you find more and more people involved with a sportsmen’s club. In my little area, 20 minutes from the edges of Hartford, I have four.”
Sawyer, who voted against the assault weapons ban in 1993, said the club members are in the political mainstream.
“These are people who host political debates, people who host Easter egg hunts for little children. In the spring, they hold fishing events for children not usually able to come out, for disabled vets and others,” she said. “So, when they speak, many politicians are very sensitive to their comments.”
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the legislature is sensitive to infringing on the rights of sportsmen.
“What we have to do is things that reasonable, responsible gun owners would not find overly onerous,” Looney said.
He wants ammunition sold only by permit, as is the case now for handguns, though not rifles. Looney also says high-capacity magazines should be banned, while critics say magazines can be quickly changed.
“None of these things are individually a solution or a cure-all or a panacea,” Looney said. “But collectively they might be able to provide some way of diminishing the likelihood of these mass killings, or give people the chance to intervene when someone is changing a clip, that kind of thing.”
Crook opposes them, calling them feel-good measures.
Until Newtown, Crook had ambitious plans for the 2013 session of the General Assembly. He wanted the legislature to take a fresh look at the assault weapons ban, the first step in what Crook had hoped would be a major legislative change: the law’s repeal.
“I think I could have made a good case there.”