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Shooting may drive lawmakers' agenda in Hartford

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published 12/19/2012 12:00 AM
Updated 12/19/2012 01:33 PM
Legislature may look at gun violence and mental health issues

State legislators say they are ready to address gun violence, mental health services and school safety in the wake of the massacre in Newtown.

"Look at these high-powered rifles, the Bushmaster, a modified version of the M16. There is no reason to own one unless you are fighting somewhere in Afghanistan," said state Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London. "It doesn't take a high-powered Bushmaster to go duck hunting."

Incoming Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey said once he selects committee chairs he will put together a group to create a package of legislation to tackle gun safety, mental health services and school safety.

Connecticut has a strong chain of title for gun ownership, suitability requirements, background checks, a gun seizure law and an assault weapons ban, said Attorney General George Jepsen. Connecticut is the only state in the U.S. to have a gun seizure law, which allows a person to report suspicious behavior such as a neighbor waving around guns and shouting profanities in the front yard, he said.

The assault weapons ban was particularly hard to pass. The bill went through at least four committees and was approved by a single vote in both the House and Senate in 1993, Jepsen said. But a statewide ban isn't enough, he said. Without a federal assault weapons ban people can go to other states and buy them and bring them here.

In 2011 the judiciary committee considered a bill to ban high-capacity magazines with 10 or more rounds. Hewett, along with state Rep. Elizabeth Ritter, D-Waterford, supported it, but roughly 500 "gun-carrying people" lobbied before the committee and the bill died, Hewett said.

Hewett, Ritter and Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, are among those who say they would support a similar bill in the upcoming session. Rep. Edward Moukawsher, D-Groton, said he is leaning toward supporting such a bill.

"I don't see the necessity of high-capacity magazines," Moukawsher said. "They are so lethal in these situations that I am inclined to support some kind of restriction on it."

State Reps. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, and Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, said they needed more information and time before drawing a conclusion. Wright served on the judiciary committee when the ban on high-capacity magazines was discussed.

"Whether that bill would have made a difference or not it's hard to know," Wright said. At the time there was heavy resistance from some of the advocacy groups, she said.

She said she expected a thorough examination of the issues in the upcoming session. "It's too early to be specific right now," Wright said.

Jutila said legislators shouldn't jump to any conclusions on how to keep lethal weapons out of the hands of people who might harm others, secure schools or get the mentally ill treatment until there is a serious conversation among many people. Gun-control advocates, gun owners, experts, parents, teachers and the general public should have a voice, Jutila said.

Many legislators expressed the desire to return funding to state-run mental health services as opposed to the current focus on community services such as group homes or nonprofits.

"We have kind of gone away from having some kind of designated institution and services to a very diffused delivery system through group homes, and I think it has left people at a loss who have children, who are struggling with problems like this young man had," Moukawsher said.

Urban, a member of the select committee on children, said she plans to help adolescents dealing with mental illness and substance abuse get better insurance coverage or access to support.

"I have had emails from constituents and people around the state who have indicated instances where there is a desperate need for a child to get mental health help and they are unable to get it until that child either harms himself of harms someone else," Urban said. "We need to close that gap."

Urban also said she wants to bring back the simulated gun issue. She wants to keep fake guns or gun replicas 250 feet away from schools. Children need to learn that guns are not toys, she said. Fake guns are also dangerous because police officers cannot tell when a child is using a replica gun or a real gun, she said.

Sharkey, the incoming speaker of the House, said comprehensive solutions arise from diverse viewpoints.

The National Rifle Association typically does a good job of getting its members out and message heard, he said.

"The tragic events that we have been going though has sensitized the public to the importance of this issue in ways that it wasn't before," Sharkey said. "I hope in a public process they will also have their voices heard."

j.somers@theday.com

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