Gov. Dannel P. Malloy outlined a broad approach Thursday to the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown that claimed 26 lives, convening an expert panel that will explore relevant issues of gun control, school security and mental health.
The governor named Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson to lead the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, whose 15 members will be asked to make a first round of recommendations by March 15, nearly three months before the General Assembly’s adjournment deadline of midnight June 9.
On the same day that Sandy Hook Elementary students returned to classes in a hastily outfitted surplus school in neighboring Monroe, Malloy said he wants to begin devising policy changes in response to the mass shooting.
“We don’t know yet the underlying cause behind this tragedy, and we probably never will,” Malloy said. “But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. I want the commission to have the ability to study every detail, so they can help craft meaningful legislative and policy changes.”
State police say that Adam Lanza, 20, shot his way into the locked school on Dec. 14, killing 20 first-grade students and six educators with a semi-automatic .223-caliber rifle, before fatally shooting himself with a handgun as police arrived. Some of the children were shot as many as 11 times.
Lanza carried 30-round magazines, and Malloy made clear he expected that high-capacity magazines will be an issue for the commission, as well as for legislators who already are considering gun-control legislation.
“You don’t need a 30-round clip to go hunting, and you don’t need a 30-round clip to honor the Constitution of the United States, and I think it’s time we had a realistic discussion about the weapons that are being used time and time again in these mass casualty situations,” Malloy said. “I mean, it would be stupid not to have that conversation.”
Malloy acknowledged that school shootings and mass shootings are rare, with gun violence typically taking more lives through incidents that generate few headlines, but he wants the commission to begin its work with a tight focus on the issues raised by Newtown.
“Right now, we have an issue that the people of Connecticut want dealt with,” Malloy said.
The assault on Sandy Hook Elementary was the worst shooting at a primary school in the United States, and President Obama has called Dec. 14 the worst day of his presidency. But even horrific shootings rarely lead to changes in state gun laws, ProPublica reported Thursday.
Virginia, for example, adopted none of the recommendations made by a blue-ribbon commission created after 32 students and faculty members were shot to death at Virginia Tech in 2007. Arizona rejected a proposal to limit magazines to 10 rounds after a gunman killed six and wounded 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who plans a visit to Newtown.
“This is a tough issue,” Malloy said.
Jackson is a two-term mayor of Hamden, a New Haven suburb of 60,000. He served on a commission Malloy convened to make recommendations about the response by the state and utilities to two storms that caused prolonged blackouts in 2011.
“This is an issue that touches all our people. My son is a first grader,” said Jackson, the father of two. “I believe very strongly in this. And I do think this is possibly the most important thing I could do right now.”
No other commission members were identified, but Malloy said they will include experts in education, mental health, law enforcement and emergency response. All will be from outside state government, but Michael Lawlor, the governor’s adviser on criminal justice issues, will staff the panel.
Lawlor said the governor’s office has identified and invited the other commission members, but it is awaiting acceptances by the entire group.
Jackson said he expected gun control to generate the most initial public interest, but the broader issues of school safety and mental health will be important areas of inquiry.
Malloy said the state has more people who have access to mental health services than in many other states, in part because of a Medicaid program for poor adults that serves close to 84,000 people.
The governor said that the availability of mental-health care likely was not an issue for Lanza, who came from a wealthy family. But Malloy said he hopes the commission will generate a thoughtful discussion on the status of mental health care in Connecticut and the U.S.
“Having mental health services and getting to the point where a stigma that might otherwise attach to accessing those services dissipates is a very important process for our country to engage in,” Malloy said.
“All too often, we think of treatment for mental illnesses very differently than we think about a broken arm or a broken leg, or, for that matter, a chronic illness. And I think that although we’ve made gigantic gains in this area since the first mental institution in the country was established here in Hartford, Connecticut — that’s part of our history — although we’ve made substantial gains during that period of time, there is a reality that we need to make substantially greater gains in the future,” Malloy said.
“And if Connecticut can help lead that discussion then that’s going to be an important part of the discussion, particularly given the role that Connecticut plays in, for instance, in the medical health field. Not just the institutions that are operating in our state, or our great hospitals, but also the presence of a big portion of the insurance industry,” Malloy said.
“So I think this is an opportunity for Connecticut to lead the way, as it has since the first founding of a mental institution in the entire continental United States, played that role.
“And that could be some good that comes out of this horrific incident.”
Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CTMirrorPaz