Gun bill draws criticism, praise from local lawmakers

Gov. Dannel Malloy discussed gun control among other issues during a community forum in Naugatuck last month. Malloy signed a controversial gun bill into law last Thursday after it was approved by the General Assembly. –FILE PHOTO
Gov. Dannel Malloy discussed gun control among other issues during a community forum in Naugatuck last month. Malloy signed a controversial gun bill into law last Thursday after it was approved by the General Assembly. –FILE PHOTO

While landmark legislation in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting passed easily last week in Hartford, the majority of lawmakers representing Naugatuck, Beacon Falls and Prospect disapproved of the bill.

“I believe this is affecting law-abiding citizens,” said state Rep. Lezlye Zupkus (R-89), who voted against the bill.

Senate Bill 1160, known colloquially as the gun bill, was approved by the Senate 26 to10 and by the House 105 to 44 last Wednesday and signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy the day after.

The bill beefs up the state’s gun-control laws. It immediately expands the state’s assault weapons ban. Previously, 66 specific makes and models of semiautomatic rifles, shotguns and handguns were banned. The expanded ban covers more than 100 additional firearms.

It also increases the number of military-style features that qualify other firearms as assault weapons under the law, and it bans any firearms that feature even one of these traits.

The bill also expands background checks for both weapons and ammunition, requires an eligibility certificate for rifles and shotguns, bans the sale and possession of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds and creates a dangerous weapons offender registry among other gun-related measures.

Owners of newly banned weapons and ammunition magazines can apply for a certification of possession to retain them by Jan. 1.

The bill comes on the heels of the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown where 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed six teachers and 20 students.

Although the gun laws drew much of the discussion centered around the bill, it also seeks to address mental heath and school safety issues.

Among its mental health provisions, the bill creates a 20-member task force to study the provision of behavioral health services in Connecticut and report to the legislature by Feb. 1. It also requires the Department of Mental Health and Addition Services to administer a mental health first aid training program in consultation with the Department of Education and implement three additional assertive community treatment programs.

As far as school safety, the bill creates a new council to establish new school safety infrastructure standards and authorizes funds for a new competitive grant program for school safety projects. It also requires school districts to perform a number of new school safety initiatives including establishing safety and security plans and committees for each school.

Of the seven legislators who represent Naugatuck, Beacon Falls and Prospect state senators Joseph Crisco (D-17) and Joan Hartley (D-15) were the only ones who voted in favor of the bill.

“I thought everybody did a good job,” Crisco said. “We all worked together to fulfill our responsibility as legislators.”

Even though the bill was a bipartisan effort Crisco knows that not everyone was able to get behind it.

“There were some people on both sides that said either you did too much or you didn’t do enough,” Crisco said.

Hartley could not be reached for comment.

One of those legislators who felt it did too little was state Rep. Theresa Conroy (D-105).

“I really don’t believe that what was in the bill was enough to prevent future Sandy Hooks. We need to be focusing more on mental health,” Conroy said.

Conroy, whose main reason for voting against the bill was she felt it did not address mental health care strongly enough, said the bill was only looking at the weapon, not the person carrying it.

“I truly believe it is the mental health issues that are the problems. We need to address those. Guns aren’t the ones doing the killings. It’s the person behind it,” Conroy said.

Zupkus along with state Rep. Rosa Rebimbas (R-70) expressed similar concerns regarding the way the bill addresses mental health issues.

“Although, there may never be a law that would prevent another mass shooting or similar tragedy it is my opinion that this proposed bill will not properly address the glaring deficiency we have in properly identifying and treating people who have mental illnesses or the access to firearms by certain people with mental illnesses,” Rebimbas said.

Zupkus added, “It does not address the real issue at hand, which is mental health. There’s nothing in the bill that would have made a difference in the terrible tragedy at Newtown or anything in the future from happening.”

A prevailing thought among those who voted against the bill is it’s an overreaching piece of legislation that conflicts with the Second Amendment of the Constitution.

State Rep. David Labriola (R-131) said he could not vote in favor of a bill he believes constitutes an infringement on the right to bear arms.

“Specifically my concern was the increased restriction and regulation directed towards responsible gun owners,” Labriola said. “If I believed that this bill would save lives or prevent a future tragedy then of course I would support it, but I don’t think that it will.”

State Sen. Joseph Markley (R-16) was unhappy with how the bill moved forward. He said the bill was debated for months then a compromise was reached among the General Assembly leadership and the bill was given to the rest of the legislature only hours before the vote without a public hearing.

Markley said the entire General Assembly was not given long enough to grasp the complex bill. He felt some legislators had an agenda and proponents of gun control took this opportunity to get certain agenda items passed.

Markley was concerned about the effect the bill will have on law-abiding gun owners.

“I think the heart of the bill and really the impetus of the bill was to put more restrictions on law-abiding gun owners,” Markley said.

Markley doesn’t believe the legislation will make the state safer. Rather, he feels, it will make criminals out of legal gun owners.

“It creates further restrictions on people who aren’t doing anything wrong. It does it, in my opinion, without accomplishing anything,” Markley said.

Rebimbas also felt that the bill puts undo restrictions on her constituents who own guns.

“I represent many law-abiding firearm owners and sportsmen and women who include law enforcement officials, veterans, competitive adult and young adult shooters whose rights are unfairly impeded upon by this bill,” Rebimbas said.

Crisco contended the bill addresses the right of citizens to bear arms in a well thought out manner.

“I respect the right of those concerned about the Second Amendment, but the children and adults who were killed they had rights too. You have a responsibility to balance the rights of the Second Amendment and the rights of those who lost lives. I thought we did a good job on balancing both,” Crisco said.

There are parts of the complex legislation lawmakers who voted against the bill favor.

Markley said he favors the creation of a 20-member task force to study the provision of behavioral health services in Connecticut, the expansion of the assertive community treatment programs and increased penalties for illegal possession of guns and crimes when guns are used.

Markley said he also likes that the bill increases the amount of time a person must wait for a gun permit after being confined in a psychiatric hospital by probate court order. Previously a person had to wait 12 months after being released from the hospital. The bill extends this period to 60 months.

“I think it would have started to address some problems,” he said.

Labriola said he supported the portions of the bill that enhance school safety and mental health reform and put more restrictions on an early release program for prisoners.

Conroy was also pleased with a number of items the bill covered.

“We did do a lot of good things in that bill. I’m not saying that we didn’t. I was all for things such as background checks, toughening the penalties for crimes, safe storage, expanding the permitting on long guns and ammunition. Those were all positive factors that we did,” Conroy said.

However, in the end, those who cast a no vote felt that the negative impact of the bill outweighed any of the positives.

“It was not an easy decision. It took a lot of thinking and listening to my constituents,” Zupkus said.

Even Crisco feels the bill isn’t perfect.

“No bill is perfect. Maybe we can’t achieve 100 percent, but we sure as heck tried,” Crisco said. “It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction, it was a responsible endeavor.”

Crisco continued, “I am proud of my colleagues, regardless of their votes. It’s one of our finest hours. This was a bipartisan bill, which is a rare entity in the General Assembly.”

Elio Gugliotti and the Republican American contributed to this article.