Po Murray, chair of the Newtown Action Alliance, stands behind a podium while speaking to the press. Murray is flanked by Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, health officials and law enforcement.
Po Murray, chair of the Newtown Action Alliance, speaks at a press conference on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in front of the Connecticut State Capitol. Jaden Edison / CT Mirror

As police in Maine search for the suspect in the killing of 18 people and injuring of 13 others, Connecticut officials and gun reform advocates are calling for participation in a program created with a goal of protecting children and communities from gun violence. 

The officials and advocates conducted a press conference Thursday outside of the Connecticut State Capitol to raise awareness about the program, known as the #KeepKidsSafe Connecticut Statewide Gun Buyback and Gun Safe Giveaway, scheduled for Saturday. The program will allow residents to exchange unwanted or unneeded weapons for gift cards. 

“Until we wait for Congress to pass strong gun laws on a federal level, we need to do all we can to keep our children and our families safe. And this is one way that we can do it,” said Po Murray, chair of the Newtown Action Alliance, a volunteer organization formed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz attended the outing along with Murray and representatives from the Ethan Miller Song Foundation, Saint Francis Hospital, Connecticut Children’s Hospital, Hartford Hospital and the Hartford Police Department. 

While talking about the buyback program, the organizers extended their sympathies and regards to Maine residents, many of whom are currently reeling from the massacre of 18 people in the small town of Lewiston by a gunman who, at the time of the press conference, still hadn’t been located or arrested. 

“We’re all tired of waking up to news like this,” Bysiewicz said. 

Police are accusing Robert Card, a firearms instructor and an army reservist, of the killings and injuries that occurred Wednesday night at both a local bar and a bowling alley in Lewiston; he was charged with murder on Thursday. Since the shootings, Maine officials have ordered a shelter in place, while many schools and businesses are closed. 

In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont directed all U.S. and state flags to fly at half-staff in accordance with a proclamation from President Joe Biden. State Police Col. Stavros Mellekas also said in a statement Thursday that, if requested, the State Police would assist law enforcement in Maine. 

In front of the Connecticut State Capitol, less than a 300-mile drive from Lewiston, a town of more than 38,000 people, officials and advocates promoting the buyback program said they were “devastated” about the recent tragedy — the 565th mass shooting of 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Murray said her organization reached out to a Maine gun safety group since the recent violence to “see how we can be helpful.” 

Murray also said the Newtown Action Alliance is urging Maine’s congressional delegation, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and the state legislature, which holds a Democratic majority, to pass “common sense gun laws the way that we did in Connecticut.” Maine currently ranks 25th in the country for gun law strength, according to Everytown Research & Policy.

Maine does not require background checks on all gun sales, according to the research organization. Nor does it require all people carrying concealed firearms in public to first obtain a permit. 

“Let’s face it, our borders here in Connecticut, it’s open,” Murray said. “So we are only as strong as the weakest gun laws in the country. That’s why we all need to pass legislation state by state and, also, Congress must act.” 

Murray and Bysiewicz continued urging Congress to pass a federal assault weapons ban. 

Surgeons from the state’s hospitals also attended the press conference on Thursday, providing insight into their struggles with maintaining enough staff and resources to respond to gun violence trauma. Alfred Croteau, of Hartford Hospital, said the facility has treated more than 100 patients with gunshot wounds this year, half of whom he said were admitted for more than 10 days. 

“I stand before you advocating not for a response to these incidents but for their prevention. Prevention should always be our primary goal,” Croteau said. “We can’t heal the pain and suffering caused by gun violence after the fact. We can only strive to ensure these incidences never occur in the first place.”

But federal and state legislation only represent one part of the solution, said David Shapiro, a surgeon at Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford. 

“If we’re going to make a difference, we have to be aware of our colleagues, our loved ones, our families, our communities, and that’s the way to get the message across,” Shapiro said. “Then we can really understand why it’s so important to have this legislation.”

The buyback program slated for Saturday will allow residents to go to Guilford, Hartford, Newtown, Meriden, Middletown, Stamford or Waterbury and exchange their guns for gift cards, officials said Thursday. Pistol permit holders can also receive free gun safes for as long as supplies last. 

Earlier this year, Connecticut lawmakers passed the first comprehensive update of the state’s gun laws, which have survived an onslaught of legal challenges since the sweeping reforms enacted a decade ago in response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook.

The new law bans the open carry of firearms, strengthens rules for gun storage and reporting stolen firearms, and expands a ban on AR-15s and other assault weapons passed in 1993 and updated in 2013.

The measure incorporates elements of a tougher approach to gun crimes urged by the Democratic mayors of Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury, where 80% of all shootings occur in Connecticut.

Last year, following the Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y., massacres, Congress passed its first major gun bill in decades, known as the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. 

The new law implemented enhanced background checks for buyers under the age of 21, criminal penalties for straw purchasers and gun traffickers, funding for states to create “red flag” laws that would keep firearms out of the hands of people who are a danger to themselves or others, and additional funding for community violence prevention programs, schools and mental health services.

But a federal assault weapons ban and additional comprehensive measures to curb mass shootings have yet to materialize. The recent tragedy in Lewiston, in a state that experienced 29 homicides in all of 2022, has renewed calls in Connecticut for action in Washington. 

“It’s retraumatizing for our community to just repeat; we’re on a repeat cycle,” said Murray, who resided in the Sandy Hook community when the 2012 mass shooting transpired. “Over and over, we do the same thing over and over again. And if not now, then when will Congress act to ban assault weapons and pass a set of comprehensive gun laws that will start protecting American lives?”

Jaden is CT Mirror's justice reporter. He was previously a summer reporting fellow at The Texas Tribune and interned at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. He received a bachelor's degree in electronic media from Texas State University and a master's degree in investigative journalism from the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.