At left is Mary Ann Jacob, a survivor of Sandy Hook, standing with other members of Moms Demand Action, a gun control group. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Connecticut passed a safe-storage gun bill called “Ethan’s Law” in 2019 by lopsided margins of 34-2 in the Senate and 127-16 in the House. A similar bill introduced the same year in Congress never came to a vote. 

The episode offers a cautionary lesson for those trying to gauge what, if anything, has changed in American politics, especially as practiced in Washington, D.C., following the massacre Tuesday of 19 fourth-graders and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas.

The Connecticut measure was the work of a Democrat and a Republican from neighboring districts, each vouching for the other in talks with opposing constituencies. Together, they largely depoliticized a gun bill.

“I don’t know whether what we did is the last of a dying thing or proof that it could work at a higher level if people tried more,” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, who worked on the bill with House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford.

Scanlon is a former aide to U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. As the de facto leader of the gun control movement in the Senate, the Democrat of Connecticut is trying to find the formula for a similar detente in Washington.

On Tuesday night, Murphy goaded his Republican colleagues to act, giving an emotional speech from the floor of the U.S. Senate. On Wednesday morning, Murphy talked about new conversations under way, unsure if they will differ from previous talks after previous mass shootings.

“I get it. I seem like a guy who literally bangs my head up against the same wall over and over again and comes back for more,” Murphy said by phone from Washington. “But I have been on the phone and texting with my Republican colleagues all night last night and all this morning. I am trying to conceive of a path forward.”

In Hartford, Gov. Ned Lamont stood on the steps of the state Capitol with lawmakers and gun control advocates, including Mary Ann Jacob, a school library clerk who survived the Sandy Hook shooting huddled in a closet with 18 9-year-olds and three colleagues.

“Yesterday, I was right back in that closet, remembering the fear and horror we experienced trying to be brave for the kids we were with,” Jacob said. “How many more kids have to die in our schools before federal lawmakers will act? We cannot accept this is the fate of teachers, communities and families.”

Also in attendance was Kristin Song, the mother of Ethan, who was accidentally killed while he and a friend played with one of three handguns owned by the friend’s father. The firearms were stored in a cardboard box inside a Tupperware container. The guns had trigger locks, but the keys and ammunition were in the same box.

Gov. Ned Lamont, Po Murray and U.S. Reps. Jahana Hayes and John Larson among others listening to Mary Ann Jacob. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

As a group, they bemoaned the necessity of 60 votes, a super-majority, to avoid a filibuster and bring bills to vote in the U.S. Senate.

“We are not asking for anything complicated here,” said U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District. “All we’re asking is that the legislation that passes the House be taken up in the United States Senate.”

Lamont soft-pedaled reelection politics, making no mention of his differences with his opponent, Republican Bob Stefanowski.

Four years ago, the NRA endorsed Stefanowski, giving him a grade of AQ, the highest available to a candidate with no voting record on guns. Neither the NRA nor Stefanowski released the questionnaire he completed before getting the group’s endorsement, but a blogger’s video showed him promising to veto any law that burdens gun owners.

On Wednesday, Stefanowski suggested he had no interest in supporting efforts to weaken a state law passed in 2013 in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown. It required universal background checks and banned large-capacity magazines and certain military-style weapons.

“Connecticut has the strongest gun laws in the entire country and that’s the way they should stay,” Stefanowski said in a statement. “But I will also use my platform as governor to urge federal action in Congress on comprehensive solutions that protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners, while strengthening federal laws that prevent those who pose a risk to themselves and others from getting their hands on a gun.”

He offered no details on what comprehensive federal solutions are necessary to protect gun owners.

For years, Murphy has been focusing on passage of a bill that would mirror one element of the Sandy Hook law: Universal background checks that would close loopholes that allow the purchase of firearms without a criminal records check.

Once, gun-control advocates had to assure gun owners that a modest safety measure would not be a step toward a slippery slope of widespread gun bans.

“We live in a world today where the issue of firearms has become a proxy for a broader conversation about cultural values,” Murphy said. “So many conservatives are unwilling to brook any compromise on the issue of guns, because they see that as signaling some weakness in a battle between liberty and government intervention.”

U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, said the federal version of Ethan’s Law is a case in point.

“Ethan’s law is a really easy example, because the argument is always we’re trying to take people’s guns away. Ethan’s Law just says if you own a gun, you have to store it responsibly,” Hayes said. “And we can’t even get consensus there.”

Candelora, the state House GOP leader who was Scanlon’s negotiating partner on the state version of the law, said both parties thrive in Washington on polarizing politics that mobilize their donor and voter bases — especially gun control.

“When I look at the federal government, I do think it has become sort of a proxy on where you stand with those constitutional values,” Candelora said. “I do think both parties have made it that way. To the extent either one can get an upper hand, that’s what they do.”

Candelora said he and Scanlon succeeded in assuring gun-control advocates and gun owners that Ethan’s Law would consider their varying views.

“We brought everybody into the room, and we didn’t allow it to become a political football,” Candelora said. “It requires courage on both sides of the aisle for that to happen.”

Ethan’s Law was a relatively modest measure. It requires gun owners to safely store untended firearms, whether loaded or unloaded. Previous law in Connecticut applied only to loaded weapons, even if ammunition was readily available.

The bill was one of three gun-safety or gun-control laws Connecticut passed in 2019. 

One prohibits storage of a handgun in an unattended motor vehicle if the firearm is not in the trunk, a locked safe, or a locked glove box. The other regulates 3D-printed firearms and bans so-called “ghost guns” that can be assembled from untraceable parts, unless the owner obtains and engraves the weapon with a serial number obtained from the state.

The ghost gun ban has proved unenforceable. It exempts guns assembled before passage, but police say there is no way to prove when an unregistered gun was built. 

The Lamont administration sought striking the exemption, but the bill never came to a floor vote in the short 2022 session. The governor offered no opinion Wednesday as to whether it was worth attempting passage in a special session.

Scanlon said the state version of Ethan’s Law was a product of the working relationship he and Candelora enjoy.

“I think it starts with trust and relationships,” Scanlon said. “Why that might be possible here in Hartford versus in D.C. is that the art of trust and relationships is no longer what they teach you in politics boot camp — especially in the U.S. Congress.”

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Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.