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Westport forum: Officials struggle for common ground on gun rights v. gun control

Updated 8:38 am, Monday, February 4, 2013

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  • Speakers at a gun violence forum Sunday at Temple Israel in Westport included, from left, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, state Sen. Beth Bye, state Rep. Gerald Fox III and Michael Lawlor, a representative from Gov. Dannel Malloy's administration.  WESTPORT NEWS, CT 2/3/13 Photo: Andrew Brophy / Westport News contributed
    Speakers at a gun violence forum Sunday at Temple Israel in Westport included, from left, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, state Sen. Beth Bye, state Rep. Gerald Fox III and Michael Lawlor, a representative from Gov. Dannel Malloy's administration. WESTPORT NEWS, CT 2/3/13 Photo: Andrew Brophy

 

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More than 200 people turned out Sunday at a Westport forum to hear elected officials from the federal to local levels discuss how to reduce gun violence and bridge the hostile divide between gun-rights and gun-control advocates.

The likelihood of new gun-control legislation was much better in Connecticut than in Washington, according to elected officials who spoke at the two-hour forum in Temple Israel. But the officials said at least one measure -- requiring people who buy guns privately or at gun shows to undergo background checks -- appears to have broad support.

"The prospect is not good for substantial change in our federal gun controls. It pains me to say that," said U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4. "I don't believe we will pass an assault weapons ban in Washington or limit the number of rounds in a magazine to 10."

The gun-rights lobby, Himes said, had instilled a great deal of fear in congressional colleagues by saying they would suffer politically if they signed onto sweeping gun-control measures. But Himes said he has not met anyone who thinks "universal background checks" was a bad idea, though he noted the National Rifle Association was opposed to that. He said he was "much more optimistic" that the state legislature will pass "a solid package of gun control legislation."

Michael Lawlor, undersecretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration, said Malloy is "fixated on this issue as much as I've ever seen" and that "unprecedented bi-partisan support" exists among leaders in the General Assembly for "major steps toward reasonable limits on firearms ownership in the state."

"They're hoping to have something accomplished by the end of the month," Lawlor said.

State Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said, "We are talking with each other. It's across parties. It's across chambers."

"I think in Connecticut we have a pretty incredible opportunity to show the nation we can make meaningful gun reforms while respecting the Second Amendment," Bye said.

State Sen. John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said Newtown residents, in the wake of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in their town, have told legislators it was "time to put hardened positions to the side and partisanship to the side."

"We are not Washington, D.C.," McKinney said. He said state legislators finding common ground "may be the greatest message we can send to a dysfunctional Washington, D.C."

Referring to potential inaction in Washington, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff said, "You need to have legislators who are brave, who will take a stand, who will vote for gun control and to heck with the consequences."

In Connecticut, Lawlor said 10 areas need to be addressed by the legislature, which include:

- Requiring some or all "long guns," such as rifles and shotguns, to have the same regulations on sales and transfers as handguns. Under existing state law, the assault rifle used in the Newtown massacre can be sold from one neighbor to another with no questions asked, Lawlor said.

- Better defining an assault weapon so manufacturers can't slightly modify a weapon to render it outside the definition.

- Focusing on behavior instead of a diagnosis from a mental health professional in determining who is disqualified from having a permit to own a gun. "Gov. Malloy is very concerned about unnecessary stigmatization about people with mental illness. There are plenty of people who are dangerous who are not mentally ill," Lawlor said.

- Whether a gun owner has to notify authorities if he or she lives with someone who exhibits troubling behavior.

- Modifying a gun seizure law in Connecticut that allows police to seize weapons from a person at imminent risk to himself or others. Lawlor said the judicial branch has said the guns can be withheld for a year and he suggested the seizure could be permanent.

- Restricting the purchase of ammunition to people with gun permits, which Lisa Labella, co-executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence and a speaker at the forum, said would make illegally-owned guns "useless."

- Restricting gun permits to people who have been convicted of more than just felonies and major misdemeanors. He noted drunken driving was not on the list.

Labella said she also favors prohibiting the sale of arms over the Internet and restricting handgun purchases to one per month. The lack of limitation on gun purchases means "straw purchasers" can buy 100 guns, McKinney said.

Lawlor said Connecticut's state constitution says every citizen has "the right to bear arms in defense of himself or the state" and that right must be respected. "But with that right comes responsibility. People who act recklessly or negligently or irresponsibly can lose that right," he said.

Himes said the debate about gun control has been framed incorrectly as "pro gun" and "anti gun." He said the Second Amendment was not an absolute right, just as the First Amendment was not an absolute right. The First Amendment doesn't allow someone to shout "Fire" in a crowded movie theater, nor does it allow the media to slander or libel someone, Himes said. He said restrictions already are in place on the Second Amendment as well.

"We already draw lines and constrict, if you will, our fundamental Second Amendment right. All we're talking about is if we've drawn that line appropriately," Himes said.

Lawlor said the government imposes restrictions on the right to vote by requiring people to register ahead of time and vote at a set place and within a set time. "All we're talking about are reasonable regulations," he said.

Bye said that citing the Second Amendment is not a defense to new gun-control measures. "Not one gun safety advocate said we should do away with the Second Amendment," Bye said of a hearing last week in Hartford. "I haven't met a gun safety advocate who has said, `I'm totally against all guns.' "

Himes said opposition to limiting the capacity of magazines is based on fears of a "slippery slope that prevents us from having a discussion of where do you draw the line."

"We need to get the discussion back to where do we draw the line," he said.

Bye said objections to limiting rounds in a magazine also were based on the potential of multiple intruders in a home invasion and protection against the U.S. military if the federal government devolved into tyranny.

Himes said technology wasn't discussed enough in the gun control debate, citing as an example trigger locks that could prevent someone from firing a gun, other than an authorized user. Himes said only a small percentage of the roughly 12,000 gun murders committed every year in the United States involved assault rifles. "Let's not think that's the whole solution," he said of banning assault rifles. "Let's talk about technology. Technology would save more lives than banning assault rifles."

State Rep. Gerald Fox III, D-Stamford, said the state legislature hoped to come out with legislation by late February on areas of broad consensus and possibly come out with proposals that have less consensus after that. "This is not just a one-day, one-week, one-month fight," he said of disagreements between gun-rights and gun-control advocates.

McKinney said legislators also have to look at the impact of violence in the movies and video games on real-life violence, saying violence in the culture was "the root cause of all of this."

The possibility of placing trained police officers at schools is being discussed among state legislators, though that is really a decision for local boards of education, Fox and Lawlor said.

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Westport/Wilton, said legislators also are looking at reinforcing school entrances, putting wire in windows, adding a "panic button" for teachers and whether schools should have more social workers to identify troubled youth. She said involuntary commitments also were being looked at for mentally ill people that families can't handle.

State Rep. Kim Fawcett, D-Fairfield, said more services and programs for the mentally ill come at a cost during a time of "downward pressure" on state budgets. "How we're going to pay for it and where we're going to find the resources, that's a really difficult conversation to have," she said.

Fox and other elected officials encouraged audience members to contact their representatives. Himes suggested they look for elected officials who received a "C" grade from the NRA because they may be more persuadable than those who received an "A" or "F."

Bye said the momentum had switched in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and that more people were now contacting legislators in opposition to new gun-control measures. "People who are against any gun safety changes are working very hard," she said.

But Labella said those on the gun-control side also are active. "It's not just moms. I've seen more of what I call the stubble factor than I've ever seen before," she said.

State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Westport/Wilton, said the gun-control debate no longer had an abstract nature due to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. "This is a different experience because people have ... so much of a connection to it. It's become very intimate," she said.

But Lawlor said what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School is not the first time Connecticut has seen "extraordinary gun violence." He said Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven have seen "unprecedented levels of homicides and shootings, predominantly affecting African-American men." Of the 129 murders in Connecticut in 2011, 90 took place in those three cities, Lawlor said.

"They're different problems," Lawlor said of massacres and murders involving fewer victims, "but what they have in common is the reckless and unlawful use of firearms."

Leonard Baker, a Westport resident who attended the forum, said afterward, "I did not come here expecting to hear any resolution of the problem, but a situation where people could at least express themselves in an environment with no hostility."