Enacting meaningful gun control legislation at the federal level will require a "sustained" effort and a "better conversation" between the pro- and anti-gun lobbyists in Washington, Congressman Jim Himes (D-4th) said during a forum entitled "Guns In America and Their Impact on Our Community" held Saturday at the Darien Library.
"I am a supporter of legislation that will cap the number of rounds in a magazine; that would reinstate an assault weapon ban; and instate a universal background check," Himes told the approximately 100 people who attended the event.
The forum, the first in the Darien Democratic Town Committee's 2013 Speaker Series, "POLICYmatters: Conversations That Strengthen Our Community," also featured Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, Ron Pinciaro of Connecticut Against Gun Violence and Darien Police Chief Duane Lovello as panelists.
"My best guess today is that on the federal level we might get a universal background check law passed [in this year's legislative session]," Himes said, adding that such a law would close the loopholes that allow people to buy guns at gun shows without having to go through full background checks. With the proposed legislation, "any gun sale, the buyer is checked out for history of crimes or violence or psychiatric issues," he said.
Himes said there is also a good chance that Congress will pass an interstate gun trafficking law.
However Congress will "stop short of an assault weapon ban and something I care deeply about, which is limiting the number of rounds in a magazine," said Himes, who is sponsoring a bill banning the sale of gun magazines holding more than ten rounds.
Himes said while New York and Connecticut are poised to pass stricter gun control measures, "that's not sufficient because gun crime does not observe state boundaries — so action at the federal level is very important."
But Washington is so "polarized" on the issue, he said, with the "pro gun extreme... engaging in fear mongering" by suggesting that things like regulating the number of rounds in a magazine are a threat to the Second Amendment.
"We need to demand a better discussion than we're having today about gun safety measures," Himes said. "I'm willing to have a debate about what's the right number of rounds to allow in a magazine... but I'm not willing to get into an argument about whether such regulations are a fundamental assault on the constitution and your Second Amendment rights."
"There is no right in this country that is absolute — you do not have absolute rights anywhere, especially when it comes to things that are very dangerous," he said. "For example you have a First Amendment right to freedom of speech, but it is not OK to yell fire in a crowded theater. By the same token efforts to regulate a very dangerous technology are not efforts to obliterate a constitutional right."
Himes said in order to make progress on the federal level "it is going to require years of sustained, thoughtful, constructive argument to get the debate more rational and less emotional."
"In Congress things never move rapidly," he said. "If a year from now there is not an ability to get this number of people into a room, the ability to make real progress on this issue will fade."
"Unfortunately that has been the pattern — after Columbine, after Aurora, after West Virginia, and hopefully not after the tragedy at Sandy Hook," he said. "The pattern has been, we get really incensed, really concerned, and then we drift away from that."
Himes pointed out that while the argument for or against stricter gun control seems to fall along extremes, the issue is anything but black and white:
"I happen to enjoy shooting. I guess that makes me pro-gun," he said, referring to hunting. "I happen to support good regulations of guns. I guess that makes me anti-gun."
State Poised to Enact Stricter Gun Control
Pinciaro said in the wake of the Sandy Hook School tragedy, Connecticut is much more likely to adopt stricter gun control legislation "this time around."
"This time I feel quite confident that we do have the votes... we do have pretty strong legislation," he said, adding that while the special state task force studying the issue is yet to reach concensus, Gov. Dannel Malloy's proposal covers most of what has been discussed.
"I believe the tipping point has been reached — and I think the country is watching to see what will happen in Connecticut," Pinciaro said. "Because those other states — Colorado, Arizona and West Virginia — have not really been able to react to these mass shootings... "
He noted, however, that the National Rifle Association "has always been very powerful" in Connecticut and has succeeded in squashing proposals in the past — sometimes at the final hour.
"They're very well organized — they react immediately to everything that's going on, they can produce a number of people, and they're very passionate," he said. "In the past I think the problem has always been that there was more passion on their side than there was on ours. That's the big change now — I think there is more passion now on our side. They did a rally up in Hartford — they had 1,000 people — and at our March For Change we had 5,500."
"My mantra on this — and to quote President [John] Kennedy — has been that we're not looking for a moral victory on a legislative matter, we're looking for a legislative victory on a moral matter," Pinciaro said.
Jepsen, who helped draft Connecticut's assault weapons ban that was passed in 1993 while he was serving in the state Senate, said it was "maybe the most challenging piece of legislation that I worked on in my 16 years in the legislature." He said the measure passed by one vote in each of the five legislative committees and by one vote in the House. What's more a tie vote in the Senate was broken by the Lt. Governor.
Jepsen said as soon as the state identified which weapons to ban, the gun manufacturers responded by making slight adjustments to their products so that they no longer fit the state's definitions.
"The devil is in the details," he said. "It's really hard to find an appropriate definition of what an assault weapon is.
In 2001 the state modified the law by listing specific gun features which, when present in certain combinations, dictate whether a weapon is classified as an "assault rifle." He said unfortunately the Bushmaster .223 rifle such as the one Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook School massacre, "was left out of the law."
"It's a leaky ban and should be tightened up," Jepsen said, however he pointed out that a total ban most likely would never have passed, as evidenced by the close House and Senate votes.
Jepsen said he supports a total ban on assault weapons, "not just new sales," and pointed out that there are 8,000 assault weapons registered in the state.
"We need stronger gun laws," he said. "It should be illegal to own an assault weapon — and it should be illegal to have magazines that contain 30 bullets — but we have to deal with the fact that the Second Amendment is an individual right, for the time being."
Like Himes, Jepsen said it is going to take time to bring about the cultural change that is needed to bring about stricter gun laws.
"It needs to be a Mothers Against Drunk Driving approach," he said, adding that 30 years ago no one ever thought gay marriage would be legal or that cigarette smoking would be banned in public places. "I think we're in for a generational fight... to change the cultural acceptance of gun violence."