Important allies are cool to an idea Gov. Ned Lamont unexpectedly floated during a campaign debate and intends to pursue: Repealing the exemption that allows residents to possess AR-15 rifles purchased before the ban on sales in Connecticut.
Twice, in 1993 and then again after the Sandy Hook massacre a decade ago, the General Assembly has passed laws banning the sale of certain military-style weapons, most notably the AR-15 and its many variations.
But each time, the legislature assured gun owners that a “grandfather” provision would allow them to retain those guns. A seizure of tens of thousands of firearms was a legal and political line lawmakers were unwilling to cross.
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee that is crucial to the passage of gun laws, said he senses no appetite in the General Assembly to go back on the assurances made to gun owners.
“If you’ve told people you’re going to operate in a certain way, particularly grandfathering people and things like this particular issue, it’s a really hard hurdle to clear,” Winfield said.
Lamont, who was reelected by 12 percentage points, insists he is ready to try, even though he’s already been warned that passing a bill requiring gun seizures would be extremely difficult, even in a state with some of the nation’s toughest gun laws.
“If I don’t try now, who will try?” Lamont said.
Gun-control advocates have their own priorities for the legislative session that opens on Jan. 4. None are known to have made further state restrictions on AR-15s a priority.
“It’s not on our wish list,” said Jeremy Stein, the executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence. “Our top agenda item is to make sure that there is sufficient funding for community violence interruption and intervention.”
Stein was reached for comment while in Washington D.C. for the 10th annual national vigil for victims of gun violence, an observation began after the Sandy Hook mass shooting on Dec. 14, 2012.
“We will continue to have conversations with leadership and the governor and all partners and stakeholders to make sure that we are legislating those things that have the greatest effect of reducing gun violence,” Stein said. “And I look forward to talking with the governor about all of his proposals.”
Stein serves on a 23-member commission created to implement a gun-safety proposal Lamont included in this year’s budget: a requirement that the Department of Public Health establish a community gun violence intervention and prevention program, with initial funding of $2.9 million in federal relief money.
Winfield and Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, the other co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said they were more inclined to review the grandfather provisions that have left unenforceable state bans on ghost guns, which can be assembled at home and have no serial numbers, and large-capacity magazines.
To enforce those bans, the burden is on prosecutors to prove the ghost guns or magazines were obtained after passage of the bans. Stafstrom said he has been approached by prosecutors to revise those bans, not the grandfather provision that allows the possession of registered AR-15s and otherwise banned firearms.
“Look, I agree with the governor that it would be great to do away with the grandfathering of the older firearms. I do think that’s something we should explore,” Stafstrom said. “But the ghost gun issue and the high capacity magazine issue, at least in my mind, are higher priorities right now, because I think they would have a more robust impact on improving safety on our streets.”
Lamont raised the idea of a complete ban on AR-15s at a gubernatorial debate where his Republican opponent, Bob Stefanowski, said the police accountability law passed in 2020 with Lamont’s support has undermined police morale, resulting in a more timid police force.
Without saying precisely how, Stefanowski suggested the accountability law contributed to the deaths of Bristol officers Lt. Dustin DeMonte and Sgt. Alex Hamzy, who police say were shot to death in an ambush by a man armed with a weapon that rapidly fired 80 rounds. Sources say the weapon was an AR-15 or similar rifle.
“He’s got a full rating, NRA rating, A-plus,” Lamont said of Stefanowski during the debate. “He won’t touch guns. You’re not serious about crime unless you’re serious about guns, getting those illegal guns off the street, getting those AR-15 or other assault weapons off the street.”
Lamont, who had not called for an AR-15 ban previously in his campaign, told reporters after the debate that he would pursue one in his second term.
“They should not be allowed in the state of Connecticut,” Lamont said. “I think they’re killers. We found out they’re cop killers. I think they’re incredibly dangerous in our community. You’re not serious about crime if you leave them on the street.”
This week, he reiterated an intention to repeal the grandfather provision.
“I think it’s a loophole that makes our society here in Connecticut a little less safe,” he said.
Winfield said he understands the governor’s passion about AR-15s, often the weapon of choice in mass shootings. But street violence involving handguns, often by young people, is the more common source of shootings, if not more dramatic.
“I get why he might think that’s the way to go. I just think it’s very difficult. And I’m not sure that those [guns] who are grandfathered are really the issue,” Winfield said. “I’m not sure what we’re buying ourselves, except a very long conversation that’s brutal on the legislators.”
More than 1,300 people signed up to testify at a public hearing on the Sandy Hook law in 2013.
Holly Sullivan, the president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, a gun-owners group, said the governor and legislature should act on data, not emotion. Crimes committed with grandfathered AR-15s, which must be registered with the state police, are rare, she said.
“We don’t have any evidence that they are a real problem,” she said.
Winfield and others said street violence involving handguns is the more common source of shootings.
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said the state would have to spend millions compensating gun owners if they had to surrender the more than 80,000 grandfathered weapons in private hands.
AR-15s typically cost between $700 and $1,100.
The law that passed after a gunman used an AR-15 to kill 20 first-grade students and six educators at Sandy Hook banned the retail sale of many military-style firearms, including AR-15s then manufactured in Connecticut by Colt’s, O.F. Mossberg and Stag Arms.
It imposed universal background checks on gun purchasers, created the nation’s first gun-offender registry and imposed the same rules on the sale of ammunition that apply to firearms.
The law banned the sale of any magazine capable of holding more than 10 rounds, and it expanded the weapons covered by a 1993 assault-weapons ban, adding the XM15 Bushmaster used at Sandy Hook and dozens of other weapons by name.
But the reach of the law was far greater than the 1993 bill, covering any semiautomatic center-fire rifle that can accept a detachable magazine and has at least one other characteristic, including the iconic pistol grip of the AR-15.