It’s been 10 years since a gunman took 26 innocent lives at Sandy Hook Elementary — the lives of children and educators. And while this anniversary is difficult, it offers us an opportunity to reflect on gun violence policy in our state and nation.
On Monday I was honored to moderate a panel “How Sandy Hook Changed the Legal Environment,” to discuss the legal changes that have been made since Sandy Hook and to consider changes to consider ways to further prevent gun injury in our state.
In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, federal legislative reform has been slow. Soon after Sandy Hook, there was a bipartisan effort to expand background checks (often referred to as the Manchin-Toomey bill), but it failed in the Senate 54-46. (Only four Republicans supported the bill and four Democratic Senators voted against it). Then- President Obama called it “a pretty shameful day for Washington.” We didn’t know it at the time, but it would take another deadly school-based mass shooting a decade later, this time in Uvalde, Texas, to get federal legislation.
From a practical standpoint, the lack of a federal response makes preventing firearm mortality a state-level responsibility. Even before the tragedy at Sandy Hook, Connecticut had some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country (some of which were in response to the Connecticut Lottery shooting in 1998), but Sandy Hook revealed vulnerabilities. And so the state pursued legislation to prevent further gun death, banning more than 150 gun models (which are sometimes referred to as “assault weapons”), banning the sale of gun magazines with more than 10 rounds, requiring a permit to purchase guns or ammunition, and creating a universal background check system in the state.
Our discourse about the legal environment tends to omit conversations about manufacturer regulations. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) was passed in 2005, and it generally prohibits civil lawsuits “brought by any person against a manufacturer or seller of a firearm for any kind of relief resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a qualified product by the person or a third party.” As intended, the PLCAA prevents gun manufacturers from being held liable when crimes have been committed with their products.
At the panel Monday, State Rep. Matt Blumenthal (D–Stamford, Darien) — one of the legal representatives for some of the Sandy Hook families — spoke about his firm’s role in reaching a 2022 settlement with Remington Arms (the gun manufacturer that designed and marketed the weapon used to carry out the Sandy Hook massacre). The settlement represents the first time a gun manufacturer has been held liable for its role in a mass shooting since the PLCAA’s passage, and it could serve to fundamentally change the civil protections enjoyed by gun manufacturers — especially as it relates to the size of settlements available to survivors and manufacturer’s marketing of firearms to youth and young adults.
Increasingly, policymakers have noted the role that public health, and in particular mental health, plays in perpetrating gun violence. Following the Connecticut Lottery shooting, Connecticut passed the nation’s first Extreme Risk Protective Order (ERPOs or “red flag” laws). ERPOs allow for designated individuals, such as the police or state’s attorneys, to petition the court to temporarily remove firearms from those people who may be a danger to themselves or others. In 2021, Connecticut expanded the categories of people — like healthcare providers — who could report dangerous persons with guns to Superior Court.
While the change in Connecticut’s ERPO laws was not in direct response to Sandy Hook, the role of school-based mass shootings (namely the Parkland School shooting of 2018 in Florida) did spur other states to enact ERPO laws. It’s difficult to pinpoint the role of Sandy Hook in these subsequent legal changes, but it likely contributed to the conversation and the impetus to pass ERPO laws.
It’s well known that the Sandy Hook shooter had a troubling history, and that his mother — who was herself murdered just before the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary — perpetuated the Sandy Hook shooter’s fascination with firearms. While we will never know if Connecticut’s enhanced version of ERPO laws would have prevented Sandy Hook, the events at Sandy Hook underscored the need to have multiple ways to bring dangerous individuals to the court’s attention.
Mass and school-based shootings like Sandy Hook often serve as a catalyst to reform. And while that reform is sorely needed, it’s also important to remember that mass shootings are not representative of American gun violence. Our reform efforts must work to prevent mass shootings and everyday gun violence. Some interventions (like ERPOs) can prevent multiple forms or gun violence, but there are some forms of gun violence that may require more targeted interventions.
As a gun violence prevention researcher, the way I choose to honor the victims of Sandy Hook, and indeed all victims of gun violence, is to seek out evidence-based solutions for change. As daunting as this charge is, I embrace it because gun violence is preventable.
Connecticut is an example of the preventable nature of gun violence. Our gun death rates are consistently the lowest in the nation — in large part due to Connecticut’s legal framework. We have more work to do — our gun death rate is still unacceptably high — but like my fellow panelists, I have hope we can take what works and continue to save lives in Connecticut and serve as a model for the nation.
Kerri M. Raissian is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut; Director of the UConn ARMS Center (Advancing Research, Methods, and Scholarship for Gun Injury Prevention) and Co-leader of the Connecticut Scholars Strategy Network.