HARTFORD – In emotional back-to-back debates, the Connecticut Senate and House overwhelmingly voted for one of the nation's most comprehensive gun laws Wednesday and Thursday, a long-awaited response to one of the nation's worst mass shootings, the Sandy Hook school massacre.
The Democrat-dominated legislature passed the sweeping measure with significant Republican support, a rare bipartisan gesture on a political and cultural issue that has divided America, deadlocked Congress and stymied a president who promised strong action.
“I want to tell you how proud I am of you and how proud I am to be a member of this General Assembly,” House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, told his colleagues.
“Keeping children safe is not a partisan issue – it's not,” House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said as the seven-hour debate ended at 2:26 a.m.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will sign the bill into law at noon at a public ceremony in the Old Judiciary Room of the Capitol.
The Senate vote was 26 to 10, with 20 of 22 Democrats and six of 14 Republicans in support.
The House vote was 105 to 44, with 85 of 99 Democrats and 20 of 52 Republicans in support. One Democrat and one Republican were absent, each with serious illnesses.
Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, opened a debate for the first time since becoming the chamber's top leader in 2004, recalling his reaction on Dec. 14 when he and other legislators learned that 20 first-graders and six women had been shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
“For a few seconds, it was hard to breathe,” said Williams, a Democrat who represents a rural district in eastern Connecticut, where shooting sports are popular. “I looked around at my colleagues as we recoiled at the horror of what we learned at that moment.”
Three months later, after weeks of intense negotiations by majority Democrats and minority Republicans, besieged by an unprecedented deluge of emails and phone calls ranging from the poignant to the profane, legislators seemed relieved to end the drama.
“The country and world were watching us, wondering, 'What are you going to do?' “ Cafero said. “There's been a cloud over us.”
The six-hour Senate debate was preceded with a warning to the packed galleries from the presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman: “There is no cheering. There is no booing.”
Spectators looked down on the senators, 22 Democrats and 14 Republicans, from four rows of straight-backed wooden benches in each of two galleries lining the sides of the chamber. Overwhelmingly gun owners at the start, the audience watched like a grim jury. Most heeded Wyman's warning.
But they cheered Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who held aloft the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Heller vs. Washington, D.C., which knocked down a complete ban on firearms in the nation's capital and affirmed the right to bear arms.
“Please don't,” Kissel said. “You are not helping my argument.”
The crowd settled, returning to stony silence.
In the hallway outside, Capitol police removed one man, who they say tried to incite the crowd with shouts of “Treason!”
The day pitted the interests of gun owners, who reminded lawmakers that gun-ownership is a fundamental constitutional right, not a privilege, against the memories of 26 dead children and educators and the way that they died.
“This country is all about freedom, all about liberty,” said Sen. Jason C. Welch, R-Bristol. He said the legislature was about to infringe on liberty, without making the state substantially safer.
“I don't see anything in this bill that takes that away. You can still own your weapon,” said Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford.
No firearm would have to be surrendered under the terms of the bill, though many no longer would be available for retail sale, including AR-15 rifles manufactured in Connecticut by Colt's, O.F. Mossberg and Stag Arms.
On the desk of Sen. Joseph Crisco, D-Woodbridge, were pictures of three young Sandy Hook victims: Daniel Barden, Madeline Hsu and Ana Marquez-Greene. Their parents gave him the photographs when they visited the Capitol Monday to advocate for gun control measures.
“What about the rights of Ana, Daniel and Madeline?” Crisco asked.
Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, one of the Senate's most conservative members, stood to support the bill, acknowledging that his position might surprise some colleagues.
“December 14 changed a lot of people's viewpoints on a lot of things, on the preciousness of life, on the priority of our lives,” McLachlan said, his voice soft. “And it certainly affected me in a very great way.”
One of the victims, six-year-old Caroline Previdi, was the daughter and granddaughter of old friends, and he said that caused him to examine how the state could balance its obligation to maintain the rights of gun owners against a desire to enhance public safety.
He said it was important to him that the bill does not call for the confiscation of anyone's firearm or magazines, though it makes their ownership more complicated.
“That's a balance,” he said.
He said he balanced that inconvenience against doing something for Caroline.
Sen. Andrew M. Maynard, D-Stonington, one of two Democrats opposed to the bill, defended his friends and neighbors “who feel very passionately about any erosion of their Second Amendment rights...not because they are gun nuts. They hold this deep conviction that this is a part of who we are.”
The other was Sen. Catherine Osten, D-Sprague, a former correction officer. Her rural district in southeastern Connecticut adjoins Maynard's.
“People have a right to bear arms,” Osten said. “We already have enough restrictions on them. We don't need any more.”
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who represents Newtown, rose near the end of the debate, recalling his rushed drive to the scene, where he saw some parents reunite with children and others leave in tears. He wore a green ribbon and guardian angel pin, the gift of a police officer.
“I've tried to put it on my jacket every day to remember those that we lost,” said McKinney, who has supported gun-control measures in previous years. “I stand here as their voice, their elected representative.”
Then he picked up a list he retrieved two hours earlier.
“I want to be the voice for Charlotte Bacon,” McKinney said. “And Daniel Barden. And Olivia Engel. And Josephine Gay. And Ana Marquez-Greene. And Dylan Hockley. And Madeline Hsu. And Catherine Hubbard. And Chase Kowalski. And Jesse Lewis. And James Mattioli. And Grace McDonnell. And Emilie Parker. And Jack Pinto. And Noah Pozner. And Caroline Previdi. And Jessica Rekos. And Avielle Richman. And Benjamin Wheeler. And Allison Wyatt.”
When he finished the list of the dead children, he read recited the names of the dead educators: Rachel Davino, Dawn Hochsprung, Ann Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach and Victoria Soto.
The day was long in coming, the inevitable political response to the worst primary-school shooting in the United States, a horror that brought President Obama to Connecticut to mourn with grieving parents. He plans to return Monday to celebrate passage of the General Assembly's bipartisan response.
“The tragedy in Newtown demands a powerful response,” Williams said.
The legislative response was dropped Wednesday morning on the desk of every legislator: a 139-page bill, whose evolving sections had been seen in bits and pieces, but never as one document.
The Senate debate began at 12:40 pm with no doubt about the outcome: Passage by the Senate, then by the 151-member House, with Malloy pledging to sign the bill into law.
Amendments that would have weakened the bill failed on lopsided votes that foretold the final margin.
In the House, Rep. Arthur J. O'Neill, R-Southbury, tried a parliamentary maneuver to divide the bill, saying it had something that nearly every lawmaker could support.
After it failed on a party-line vote, the conservative O'Neill announced he would vote for the bill, calling it an effort that strikes a balance between gun rights and gun control.
“We know there are people who will not be happy with me in my district, in my hometown,” he said.
Rep. John Frey, R-Ridgefield, another conservative, prefaced his decision to vote for the bill by telling the story of his sister finding and comforting a group of Sandy Hook kids who ran from the school.
“This is coming from a guy who was endorsed by the NRA,” he said.
Carter Votes Against The Bill
Rep. Dan Carter, R-Bethel, whose district includes a section of Newtown, was one of 31 House Republicans to oppose the bill. The other two, Reps. Mitch Bolinsky of Newtown and DebraLee Hovey of Monroe, voted in favor.
The legislation was written to cover broad concerns about firearms, school safety and mental health. It imposes universal background checks on gun purchasers, creates the nation's first gun-offender registry and imposes the same rules on the sale of ammunition as now apply to firearms.
It also imposes mandatory prison sentences: three years for gun trafficking, and two years for stealing a firearm or transferring owners to a person ineligible to own a firearm, typically someone with a criminal record or mental illness.
Some sections were written to reflect the specifics of the attack.
Colleges in the state would have to establish threat assessment teams, whose duties would include trying to identify at-risk students. Adam Lanza, 20, the Sandy Hook killer, had attended Western Connecticut State University. He was described by an acquaintance in a police affidavit as a “shut in,” obsessed with a violent video game.
Authorities have yet to say if Lanza had been diagnosed with mental illness, but family friends have described him as falling on the autism spectrum. By coincidence, Wednesday was autism awareness day at the Capitol.
By name, the bill bans the sale of the Bushmaster XM15, the brand of AR-15 rifle that Lanza used to kill the 20 children and six women, all educators.
It bans the Saiga 12, an exotic shotgun modeled after an AK-47 assault rifle, that Lanza left in his mother's black Honda Civic in a fire lane outside the school.
It bans the 30-round magazines Lanza carried.
He arrived at the school with 10 magazines, loaded with 300 rounds of .223-caliber ammunition.
In less than five minutes, he fired 154 bullets from his rifle and one from a Glock handgun. As police responded to frantic 911 calls of “an active shooter,” Lanza killed himself with the Glock.
The legislation bans the sale of any magazine capable of holding more than 10 rounds, and it expands the weapons covered by a 1993 assault-weapons ban, adding the XM15 and dozens of other weapons by name.
But the reach of the bill is far greater, 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.
Those features include a forward pistol grip, a flash suppressor, a grenade or flare launcher or “any grip of the weapon, including a pistol grip, thumbhole stock, or other stock that would allow an individual to grip the weapon, resulting in any finger on the trigger hand in addition to the trigger finger being directly below any portion of the action of the weapon when firing.”
The legislature's nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates the law will cost the state up to $300,000 in the current fiscal year and between $8.6 million and $9.6 million next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
These costs come from enhancing background checks ($3.2 million) and increasing mental health services ($4.6 million). The office also estimates that increasing the mandatory minimum sentences for several gun-related offenses will result in increased prison populations -- a change that could cost the state up to $25.3 million beginning in three fiscal years.
The state will also borrow $22.9 million to finance a competitive grant program for school systems wishing to upgrade their security systems with surveillance cameras, buzzer systems, ballistic glass and other features. As with school construction, municipalities would have to contribute a portion of the cost.
Firearms manufacturers predicted they will pay a high price, fearing that gun owners nationally will boycott weapons manufactured in a state hostile to guns.
John Larkin, a lobbyist for the industry, stood on the first floor of the Capitol hours before the debate, searching the legislation for provisions that would detail which weapons were banned and whether manufacturers still could make firearms and magazines that could not be purchased in Connecticut gun shops after passage.
“It bans everything,” Larkin said, thumbing through the bill.
He was with Jonathan Scalise, the owner of Ammunition Storage Components of New Britain, whose biggest seller is 30-round magazines.
With the ban on magazines and assault weapons taking effect upon passage, Scalise said he was trying to determine if he could legally ship his product once Malloy signs the bill.
Mark Malkowski, the owner of Stag Arms, a New Britain company whose only product is AR-15 rifles, said at a minimum the legislature should delay the effective date, so manufacturers can learn how to comply.
“I don't think that's too much to ask,” he said.
(This report originally appeared at CTMirror.org, the website of The Connecticut Mirror, an independent, non-profit news organization covering government, politics, and public policy in the state. Arielle Levin-Becker and Jacqueline Rabe Thomas contributed to this report.)