Cigarette lighter in hand, Robert Crook walked the stone floors of Connecticut’s Legislative Office Building on Monday, drawing glances from gun-control lobbyists. For 33 years, Crook has been their nemesis.
He was killing time before a meeting with Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., the leader of the House Republican minority. In another state and another time, a House GOP leader would be a natural ally for Crook, but not here, not now.
Cafero said later his message to Crook was blunt: Do not take the same line in Hartford as the NRA did in Washington. No lines in the sand, Cafero warned, not after 26 students and educators were gunned down in Newtown.
“If you just fold your arms and say no, then you’ve lost me,” Cafero said. “The world has changed since Dec. 14. Anybody who is going to take the old tack does so at their peril.”
Cafero and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, whose district includes Newtown, are to hold a news conference Tuesday morning with leaders of the House and Senate Democratic majority to announce a bipartisan task force on gun violence.
Even before Newtown, the Republican leaders were difficult votes for Crook. In Connecticut, the political fault line on gun control often has been urban vs. rural, rather than partisan.
McKinney and Cafero each have supported elements of gun control in past sessions, including the flawed 1993 ban on firearms defined by the legislature as semiautomatic assault weapons.
On Monday, Cafero says he told Crook there is a bias toward action on guns, and a desire for legislation that is substantive, not symbolic.
“We live in a state where one of the biggest atrocities in recent times has taken place,” Cafero said. “It happened right here. The way things go, this issue is squarely on our table.”
At age 75, Crook stands in the swirl of a national political maelstrom, his defense of gun ownership instantly ricocheting across the nation, drawing angry calls and emails, including suggestions he take his own life, presumably with a gun.
He shrugs off the threats. He is a veteran of three tours in Vietnam, an enlisted special-forces soldier eventually commissioned as an officer, retiring from the Army as a major after 23 years in the service, settling near his last post as the New Haven-based commander of regional recruiting.
Crook, a deep-voiced smoker, admits to making one gaffe post-Newtown — a boast about the ability of gun owners last year to mobilize in opposition to a ban on high-capacity magazines, like the one that police say Adam Lanza would use a year later in Newtown.
“We killed it once,” Crook told The Hartford Courant. “And I would suspect once things quiet down a little bit, we’ll do it again.”
The line prompted an anonymous critic to create a Facebook page: “How many days before Robert Crook eats his words?”
Crook said he regrets those words.
Cafero says he told Crook he found the remark offensive.
“With all due respect, and I say this to every lobbyist, I take personal offense when I hear a lobbyist say, ‘I passed this bill. I killed that bill,’ ” Cafero said. “You didn’t do anything. You weren’t elected. I suggest you use another term.”
Used to dealing with a dozen or so reporters, Crook was deluged with local and national press inquiries after Newtown, especially in the first week when the NRA and other national gun groups fell silent.
He is the executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, a one-man trade group he operates out of his home in Guilford, lobbying on issues as diverse as fees for fishing licenses, rules on trapping and, of course, guns. It’s a low-tech operation.
“I just bought an iPad the other day, and I can’t figure it out,” Crook said, laughing.
Low-tech or not, Crook has managed a basic element of modern lobbying: He knows how to mobilize his hunters and other gun owners, who have turned out en masse as recently as a year ago to stop a ban on high-capacity gun magazines.
“I have respect for Bob,” said Kim Harrison, a gun-control lobbyist. “He brings out people, and he is direct.”
Crook’s biggest defeat as a lobbyist came in 1993, when the General Assembly narrowly voted to ban what were defined as “semiautomatic assault weapons,” a law that Crook calls symbolic.
It did not stop the legal sale of the semiautomatic .223-caliber Bushmaster AR-15 used by Lanza to shoot 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown a month ago.
The law banned some specific rifles, as well as others with military features such as pistol grips, bayonet lugs, folding stocks and flash suppressors. In response, manufacturers simply eliminated some features to keep the guns legal.
“You can’t blame the guns. That’s blaming an inanimate object,” Crook said. “Let’s blame the perpetrator. Let’s blame the cause of what happened.”
One fight Crook can expect is over the regulation of rifles. The sale of handguns is closely regulated, requiring a permit that subjects the applicant to a criminal background check. Some legislators want the same rules for long guns.
“There’s no good reason for it. Long guns are not used in crime — normally. Sandy Hook is an instance where it was,” Crook said. “He probably could have done the same with handguns, and he had handguns on him.”
Cafero suggests that, at a minimum, guns with detachable magazines be treated under the law with the same rigor as is applied to handgun sales.
Betty Gallo, a lobbyist for Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said gun-control advocates hope the legislature will draft and pass legislation that can serve as a model in other states.
“All eyes are on us,” Gallo said.
Crook said he wants Connecticut to act reasonably in the view of gun owners for the same reason.
“All I ask,” Crook said, “is let’s evaluate the problem and come up with some common-sense solutions that affect the cause of this incident, not my gun owners and me.”
Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CtMirrorPaz