The day before Newtown’s Sandy Hook students returned to school for the first time since the horrific shootings that claimed 20 of their fellow classmates and six teachers, state legislators from Westport met with constituents to talk about how changes to Connecticut laws might help prevent future acts of gun violence.
Wilton resident Jeanine Andreassi invited Westport’s State Senator Toni Boucher and State Representative Gail Lavielle to her home to meet with two dozen people from Wilton and Ridgefield to discuss their views on gun laws. Andreassi said that what happened in Newtown struck a chord for everyone there, enough to prompt them to organize and act.
“What’s shocking to me is the strong association between gun laws and violence in societies, with the U.S. having the highest homicide rate in any developed country—and the most lax laws. We’ve learned from other countries that strings of violent acts continue, until these laws are passed. A lot of us felt it was time to speak up and we’re here to say this is important,” she said.
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Both legislators said they were eager not only to listen to their constituents but also to convey their own support for efforts to restrict and reduce gun violence in the coming legislative session in Hartford, starting next week on Jan. 9.
In fact, both Lavielle and Boucher said they would “absolutely” support background checks for the sale of every gun, and also would support legislation banning the sale of high capacity ammunition magazines.
Boucher told the group, “We have to do as much as we can to tighten up the laws so at least we set a standard. At least we limit the damage going forward. And it’s the right thing to do.”
In addition, Boucher said she supports the idea of legally banning automatic and semi-automatic weapons, adding that she doesn’t believe current owners of such guns should be ‘grandfathered’ or protected from new laws crafted by the state.
“I would like for anyone that has one of these weapons to have to give them up. We should not grandfather—there are too many of these weapons out there. I think that in any of the legislation we look at, I would not support any grandfathering.”
Many of the residents at the meeting Wednesday were part of the Wilton chapter of Connecticut Against Gun Violence (CAGV). Harrison DeStefano and Lucy Davies are heading the chapter and are working with a wider coalition of people around the state.
“We wanted to organize Wilton’s grassroots efforts to try to do something. We formed a Facebook page and attracted about 300 people in two days. Our goal is not to ban guns. Our goal is to try to incorporate all view points, form a rational, responsible discussion around gun violence in our culture—not just gun laws, but mental health, parenting and what we expose our children to. But the core in our mind is that guns are too available today. Now we’re focusing on the ways to make change,” DeStefano said.
The group is directing its attention toward Hartford, especially at the start of the 2013 legislative season, “to show the lawmakers in Hartford that we are concerned and we want something to be done. We don’t this to be swept under the rug. We want change, and we want substantial change,” he added.
DeStefano and Davies are part of the larger effort working to organize a march in Hartford scheduled for February 14, the two month anniversary of the Newtown shooting. That group is calling itself “March for Change,” and grew out of a meeting that was held in Westport the Monday immediately following the Newtown incident.
“The eyes of the country are on Connecticut.”
All the attendees at Wednesday’s gathering felt strongly that what happened in Newtown made it imperative to push for concrete change at a legislative level.
“The eyes of the country are on Connecticut,” said Wilton resident Carrie Brady. “If we can’t get it done here, no one is going to be able to get it done. If what happened just a few miles away from here doesn’t motivate us to fix it, then it’s all going to go in a month or two. We have a responsibility for our own state, but also recognizing the responsibility we have for the nation, it should make us all more comfortable in stepping out there and saying, ‘We need to get this done.’”
Much of the discussion centered on pushing for ‘sensible legislation’ as opposed to unilaterally trying to outlaw all firearms. The organizers pointed out that Connecticut is one of seven states that already has a ban on assault weapons, but the only one of those seven that doesn’t have a high capacity magazine ban.
"In my view there is no reason for any civilian to have an automatic weapon that can fire so many [rounds]. It’s not just making sure only the ‘right’ people can get them; I don’t think any civilian should be able to shoot bullets so quickly and efficiently. I think if you’re not a police officer, or a member of the military, I don’t think you should have a killing machine,” said Wilton resident Megan Labant Abrahamsen.
DeStefano agreed. “I’ve talked to a lot of people on the ‘other side’ who agree—there’s no reason for anyone other than the police or even the military to have these weapons. They’re assault weapons. They’re offensive weapons. There’s no argument for having them for self-defense.”
Kathleen Warner took a look at the numbers to make her argument, reading aloud from a letter she’d written to legislators:
“We have a number of things that are dear to us—including the Constitution—but the safety of our children is also very important to us. We, like many Americans, were devastated by the massacre in Newtown. While nothing can bring back those 20 children or any other lives lost to gun violence, we can do something now to reduce and prevent future tragedies. Between December 14 and December 30, there have been over 250 gun-related deaths in the U.S.; at least six of those were children.”
She asked Boucher and Lavielle to pass “reasonable, common-sense gun safety legislation,” when they returned to Hartford: “Legislation that, at minimum, requires a criminal background check for every gun sold; ban assault and military-type weapons and high capacity magazines; and make gun trafficking a federal crime with real penalties for purchasers. In addition, we ask you to support legislation that requires a waiting period for every gun sold, requires insurance to be maintained for guns, raises the purchase age to 25, and provides for a state-financed buy-back program and provides better support and treatment programs for those with mental illnesses.”
Hartford poised to act once legislators open the 2013 session
Both Lavielle and Boucher believe they’ll see action in Hartford once they return to the capitol for the new legislative season. Given the intense amount of media coverage the Newtown shootings received, legislators will likely be looking to capitalize on the attention focused on the state.
“This won’t be done at the late night session or rushed through. I predict this will be a very deliberative process—it will be one that they’ll all want to do press conferences and get their publicity around it,” Boucher said.
Even with bills rumored to be in the pipeline, neither of Wilton’s state reps have had access to specific legislation, nor will they see anything for at least a week, until the General Assembly reconvenes. They explained that legislators working on the public safety and judiciary committees will lead the charge on introducing new legislation, and while neither Boucher nor Lavielle serve on those committees, they each do work on the education committees and will likely be focused on school safety issues.
“School construction standards may now take a whole different approach. Should we be requiring school building codes for new construction or improvements? Should there be a new process of how we protect in the schools with the drills they do or with the teachers? Should there be uniformed types of security measures in all of our schools?” Boucher explained.
However, neither legislator could commit support for any specific, proposed bills until they’re able to carefully review them once the general assembly opens its 2013 session.
Until then, Boucher and Lavielle urged the group to continue their pressure and keep their efforts organized—they suggested attending public hearings in Hartford, as well as contacting committee chairs and legislators by phone, mail or email with their opinions.
“You can’t lose steam. Your presence in Hartford, locally, and the fact that you’re organized is very powerful and effective. This is much deeper, this is a national outrage,” Boucher told the group.