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General Assembly creates its own gun-violence task force

By Johanna Somers

Publication: theday.com

Published January 15. 2013 9:00PM   Updated January 16. 2013 3:23PM
Local lawmakers named members of mental health, school security subcommittees

Connecticut lawmakers on Tuesday joined the race to prevent another Newtown shooting by creating a Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety Task Force.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy already has created an advisory commission; New York state passed new gun control legislation on Tuesday; and President Barack Obama will announce gun control and safety proposals today.

Some Connecticut prevention measures will be quick and others will take time, legislators said.

"We are the State of Connecticut. We are the ones that suffered this tragic loss, and we are the ones that have to deal with it," state Rep. Larry Cafero, R-Norwalk, said. "We are responsible and responsive to our constituents, and I don't think any state, regardless of how they act or what they do, should put any pressure on us."

The new legislative task force will focus on mental health resources, gun-violence prevention and school security, Senate President Pro Tempore Don Williams, D-Brooklyn, said. It will involve chairmen and ranking members of the judicial, public safety, education, higher education, public health, human services, children, appropriations and finance committees.

The goal of the task force is to develop a comprehensive and realistic bill by the end of February. Other measures will continue to be designed after that point, Williams said.

Access to treatment

State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, said she will be a member of the task force's mental health subcommittee and wants to look at how children are tracked as they go through different school systems or age out of public schools.

"It's thought that in the case of this kid, Adam Lanza, you know, he aged out of high school and that was it," Ritter said of the gunman in the Dec. 14 shootings that left 26 staff and students dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Maybe there weren't as many opportunities for services once he was out of school, she said.

How outpatients are handled also needs to be examined, Ritter said. Connecticut allows inpatient commitment or forced hospitalization if someone is deemed harmful to themselves or to others, said Jim Siemianowski, spokesman for the Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services. But there is no such thing as outpatient commitment, he said.

Connecticut is one of six states that does not provide for outpatient commitment, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va., dedicated to eliminating barriers to mental health care. Outpatient commitment in other states might include forcing someone who is living in the community and diagnosed with a mental illness to take medication and receive therapy, Siemianowski said.

The New York bill passed on Tuesday focuses primarily on gun control but also requires mental health professionals to report to local mental health officials when they think a patient is a threat to himself or others, according to The New York Times. Firearms could then be removed from a "dangerous patient" by law enforcement officials. The bill also expands the state's outpatient commitment laws, the Times reported.

Guns, ammunition

During a press conference on Tuesday, Malloy said he had read part of the New York legislation and that "there are things we are very much in agreement on."

The New York bill bans magazines with a more than seven-round capacity; bans semiautomatic pistols and rifles with detachable magazines and one military-style feature; and bans semiautomatic shotguns with one military-style feature, according to the Times.

Malloy said he has spoken about limiting high-capacity magazines and expanding the assault weapons ban in Connecticut. New York's universal permitting and background checks, for the most part, also make sense, he said.

"If my name has to be checked to get on a plane, someone's background should be checked to buy a gun. It's pretty straightforward," Malloy said. Analyzing New York's legislation, he said, made him think gun-control legislation could be created relatively quickly, while mental health and school-safety measures might take longer, Malloy said.

Democratic state senators assigned to the gun violence prevention subcommittee include Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, state Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, state Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, and state Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford.

Looney said the task force was obligated to reach a consensus before the end of February.

"It is our responsibility now to keep faith with the families in Newtown but also with those in all of our cities and other parts of our state who have been victimized by shocking gun violence and also by the gaps and flaws in our mental health systems," Looney said.

Other issues that might take longer to agree upon would have to work their way through the normal committee process.

This task force would hold one to two public hearings before an initial emergency bill would be passed in February, Williams said. It also would work in concert with Malloy's advisory commission, he said.

State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, said she would like to see about three public hearings to give everyone a chance to speak.

Six-week deadline

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, who will serve on the task force's school security subcommittee, said many parents have told her that their children are not getting the mental health services they need.

"The cost is between $400 and $500 an hour to be with a child psychiatrist because there is such a shortage," Urban said. "How can we mitigate that?"

One way would be to possibly take some money paid to school administrators and reallocate it to teachers and counselors on the "street level," she said.

"We are top heavy," she said.

State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, also will serve on that subcommittee.

Maynard said he thought the subcommittee would be looking at whether any school retrofitting was necessary. The group also will look at whether schools need a better safety perimeter, for example limiting vehicle access to schools and holding "awareness" training for teachers.

"I don't know if we can prepare the schools for every possible eventuality, but there certainly appears to be more that we can do," Stillman said.

The task force has six weeks to design the first part of legislation.

"I think we need to strike while the proverbial iron is hot, because you know things tend to fade away," Urban said.

j.somers@theday.com

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