Westport's Representative Town Meeting is set to join the renewed national debate about gun control when next week it considers a citizens' petition calling for the legislative body to ask President Barack Obama and federal and state legislators to enact a ban on automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines, and end "gun show loopholes."
The petition would have no legal authority, but supporters of the initiative say its endorsement through a symbolic sense-of-the meeting resolution by the RTM would send a powerful message to state and federal lawmakers about the town's position on gun control in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The petition is on the RTM's agenda Tuesday.
"After Newtown, all my friends and the community were talking about gun control," said Liz Milwe, the lead petitioner and a former RTM member. "Everyone was asking, `What can we do?' This is sending a message that our town wants a ban on these weapons and we want to close the gun-show loophole. Hopefully, other towns will follow."
The petition has so far collected 55 signatures, according to Sherry Jagerson, a principal petitioner. She and the other leaders of the initiative hope to eventually gain 1,000 signatures, she added. Other principal petitioners include RTM members Melissa Kane, District 3, and Cathy Talmadge, District 6.
"It's been obvious for many years that we need to tighten up the regulations on assault weapons and the whole procedure for getting gun permits, and I feel I'm doing it not just as an RTM member but as a citizen," Talmadge said. "Westport's a progressive town that recognizes an issue like this needs to be brought into the forum of public discussion, and hopefully there will be action."
An RTM vote to endorse the petition would be an effective means of supporting many constituents' viewpoints on gun control, Kane said.
"I'm a mother, I have children in school and I'm horrified by what happened in Newtown," she said. "I hope it never happens again. I think this is one way of starting to make a difference. There are a lot of things we need to do and gun control is definitely a part of that."
Since the Newtown tragedy, Westport has emerged in Fairfield County as a focal point for public debate about gun control. Three days after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, two Fairfield women organized a forum at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, where U.S. Rep. Jim Himes and other elected officials, as well as a number of parents of school-age children, voiced their support for stronger gun-control legislation.
Many gun-control experts already consider Connecticut to have some of the most stringent firearms laws in the nation.
Unlike an expired federal ban, the state prohibits the sale of assault weapons and does not have gun-show loopholes, which allow the sale of guns without background checks. But Connecticut does not ban large-capacity ammunition magazines, a measure that supporters of the Westport petition and many other gun-control advocates would like to see the state General Assembly pursue during this year's legislative session.
"Are the type of arms that are out there consistent with what an individual needs?" said Eliot Essagof, a principal petitioner. "The type of arms we allow people to have -- the assault weapons and the multiple-round magazines -- are not individual-based. They are basically small-army, militia-type weapons in the hands of the public."
Connecticut residents are required to obtain temporary permits from local authorities before they can receive a five-year state permit to carry pistols.
They must also complete a handgun safety course, which must at least include the National Rifle Association's Basic Pistol Course. Temporary permits cost $70 and take about eight weeks to obtain.
Westport police have records for approximately 900 temporary gun permits, according to Police Chief Dale Call.
The Westport Police Department has not taken a position on the gun-control petition submitted to the RTM, Call added.
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff reacted ambivalently to the petition.
"I am in favor of tightening gun control laws to possibly include measures cited in the petition," Joseloff said Wednesday in an email to the Westport News. "However, I am wary of asking the RTM to weigh in on national or international issues through sense-of-the-meeting resolutions ... But, in the end, it is the RTM to decide whether it wants to do so."
The new petition is not the first time the RTM has considered a gun-control proposal. In 1999, the RTM unanimously rejected a citizens' petition calling for an ordinance to ban handgun ownership in Westport, except in cases where residents expected to be in "mortal danger from certain persons."
While the RTM mostly confines its legislative work to local concerns, its debate of national issues is not unprecedented. In 1969, for instance, it approved by a 17-15 margin a resolution calling on President Richard Nixon and Congress to "take immediate action to withdraw from the war" in Vietnam, according to the Woody Klein book, "Westport, Connecticut."
Many of the petitioners say they believe that the initiative can galvanize support for new gun-control legislation among Westport's lawmakers in Hartford and Washington, D.C.
"I think it gives our representatives a real sense of where we stand on the issue," Jagerson said. "They need to know that we're behind them. This will send that message. Westport is a leader when it comes to picking up important issues."
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, and state Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican whose district includes most of Westport, said they support the petition's objectives, including a state ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines.
"It helps those of us in elected office to have towns come together in this fashion and put forward a consensus resolution on a big issue like this," Boucher said of the petition. "That helps us to make the case even better in Hartford."
Despite residents' interest in the issue, Westport is not a locus of gun selling or gun violence. The town does not have any gun retailers and firearm crimes are infrequent in Westport.
The RTM is scheduled to begin its review of the gun-control petition when it meets at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Town Hall auditorium.
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