Unexpected fault lines emerged Monday in Connecticut’s urban gun-control coalition during a 12-hour hearing that tested the General Assembly’s appetite for new restrictions on firearms and its willingness to confront illegal gun possession.
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, emerged as an obstacle to the Democratic mayors trying to target repeat offenders that police and prosecutors say are responsible for a majority of gun violence.
The mayors of Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury, where 80% of fatal and non-fatal shootings occur, are seeking passage of legislation aimed at people accused of gun crimes while on probation or free on bail.
“In 2022, the percentage of individuals arrested for fatal and nonfatal shootings in Hartford who were on pretrial release, probation or parole was a staggering 58%,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said. “In Waterbury, that number was 70%.”
Legislation proposed by the mayors would create a new crime of “serious firearm offense” and subject repeat offenders to a higher threshold for bail and an immediate revocation of probation or parole.
In sharp exchanges with Bronin and New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, Winfield complained that the bill was too broadly drawn and would create legal jeopardy for the many men who carry illegal firearms for their own protection.
“What person on the streets of Hartford who’s spending time out there, or who was in a neighborhood who used to spend time out there, doesn’t have an illegal firearm?” Winfield asked Bronin.
Bronin seemed incredulous.
“Senator, I don’t know how to answer that,” Bronin replied. “There are many people in my community who are not carrying illegal firearms.”
“Not everybody in your community,” Winfield conceded, but the ones “who might be out on the block, as we say, who might be doing things we don’t want them to do, but are not the people that are shooting up the community. We know those people. I would assume the mayor of Hartford would know what I’m talking about.”
The mayors’ bill was one of four before the Judiciary Committee: Two, including one proposed by Gov. Ned Lamont, would impose new restrictions and requirements on the sale and possession of firearms. A third proposed by Republicans would give gun owners and prospective gun buyers new rights.
Bronin, who testified via video, as did Elicker, said new gun controls were pointless without action against repeat gun offenders.
“If we don’t believe that the violation of those laws repeatedly should carry consequences, then I think those provisions are empty gestures,” Bronin said.
The mayors’ bill, House Bill 6834, would not deny bail, which would violate the Connecticut Constitution. But it would allow prosecutors to require certain defendants to post at least 30% of a bond set by a judge — not the 7% often required by bail bond companies, which guarantee the rest.
It would define a serious gun offense as “possession of a stolen firearm or a firearm that is altered in a manner that renders the firearm unlawful, criminal possession of a firearm after having been convicted of a felony or the act of brandishing or shooting a firearm while threatening another person.”
Winfield, whose home in New Haven once was struck by gunfire, told Elicker that illegally possessing a gun on the streets of New Haven or Hartford should not expose young men to higher bail or the loss of parole.
“There are young folks who are out there who, whether for their sense of protection or for other reasons, have a gun,” Winfield said. “I don’t think any of those guns are legal. If they get in trouble two times with that gun, they fall under this.”
He asked Elicker if he disagreed with his assessment that the bill reached too broadly. The mayor did.
“If someone is arrested and convicted and then arrested again, that to me indicates that higher bail should be threatened,” Elicker replied. “That’s a risk to our community.”
Winfield asked Elicker what percentage of people in New Haven, in his view, do not have a gun, legal or illegal.
“I heard you ask a similar question to Mayor Bronin. And you and I both know, we can’t speculate on that,” Elicker said. “If you have suggestions on how to appropriately narrow the language, I think we’re all very open to that.”
In written testimony, the governor sided with the mayors, calling their bill “carefully and narrowly drawn” and saying it is not a return to the discredited reliance in the late ’80s and early ’90s of mandatory sentences.
“It is not a rollback of the data-driven policies that have made Connecticut a national leader in criminal justice reform. Nor is it a return to misguided policies of the 1990s,” Lamont said. “Instead, it addresses the scourge of community gun violence by refocusing system resources on a small group of people who are most likely to perpetrate this type of violence or become victims themselves. The one and only focus must be saving lives.”
Lamont’s bill, among other things, would ban the open carry of firearms and the bulk purchase of handguns, and it would raise the minimum age for purchasing long guns to 21, the same standard as for handguns.
It also would tighten the ban on “ghost guns,” which are assembled from parts and have no serial number, create a state licensing system for all gun dealers and close what Lamont called loopholes that allow the continued purchase of banned military-style weapons such as the AR-15 and possession of large-capacity magazines.
No one from the Lamont administration testified about his proposal, House Bill 6667, annoying the ranking House Republican on the committee, Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford.
“Don’t come here and talk to us about it? That was disrespectful. I’m very disappointed,” Fishbein said.
Fishbein and another committee member, Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, are lawyers who represent a gun owners’ group, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, in court challenges to Connecticut’s gun laws.
Chief State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin and James Rovella, the commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public, provided written testimony.
Witnesses from the NRA, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Connecticut Citizens Defense League opposed them.
The Republican bill, House Bill 6817, would establish a right to carry a pistol in any state park or forest, which is now banned, and recognize gun permits issued in other states.
It also would require state public safety officials to gather and publish “statistics regarding crimes and fatalities involving firearms, including, but not limited to, crimes committed by individuals with prior convictions who were prohibited from possessing a firearm and crimes committed with illegally possessed or unregistered firearms.”