The speed with which state legislators should move to enact new laws in response to the mass school shooting in Newtown emerged as a central theme of a town hall meeting Tuesday night.
Hit the brakes, some said. Put it in high gear, others encouraged the six legislators sitting on a panel organized by Newtown Action Alliance, a grassroots group pushing for legislative change.
The legislators all are members of , which was created to come up with legislative proposals that will help prevent another tragedy like the one on Dec. 14, 2012, when 20 first graders and six educators were gunned down at Sandy Hook School.
In what state Sen. John McKinney, R-28, called “a very ambitious goal,” the task force had anticipated that each subcommittee -- divided by the three issues in its name -- would come up with proposals by Feb. 15, and then all 50 members would present a final package of proposals by Feb. 27. The School Security Subcommittee put forth its recommendations on Feb. 19, McKinney said, and the other two are forthcoming.
“I think we all agree our goal is to get it right, not done by the deadline,” he said.
Still, a handful of residents called for the task force to slow down. “Things are moving far too quickly,” Newtown resident Liam Heller said to light applause among the crowd of about 100 people, mostly from town.
Encouraging legislators to wait until an official police report is released, documenting the circumstances that led 20-year-old Adam Lanza to open fire at the school on that December morning, Heller said, “What we’re hearing in the media isn’t true.”
McKinney countered that, while a complete report is not yet available, the information provided by Connecticut State Police to date is factual. “He’s not lying,” McKinney said of state police Lt. J. Paul Vance, “when he comes out and says it was the gun used,” referring to an AR-15. “It was the gun used.”
“We have to deal with fact,” added state Rep. Larry Cafero, R-142.
The AR-15 was one of the weapons Lanza had taken from his mother, Nancy Lanza, after he shot and killed her in their Newtown home, police said. A handgun was another, and that was the weapon that Lanza, who reportedly suffered from some degree of mental health issues, used to kill himself.
Heller was not alone in asking for legislators to take their time. One woman from Sandy Hook said, “We really need to slow down.”
Sheila Matthews, a representative of the mental health nonprofit AbleChild.Org, said, “There is definitely a push to force legislation down our throats.”
According to Matthews, the focus on gun laws and school security was a diversion from the real issue at the core of it all -- mental health -- and what she argued are scientifically and statistically backed reports, kept from the public, that reveal a direct correlation between prescription drugs and violence and suicide, particularly among children.
“This is a diversion. This is a complete diversion,” she said. “Slow it down.”
As Matthews continued, residents in the audience, legislators and members of Newtown Action Alliance told her to wrap it up and sit down. “Search your souls,” she told the legislators.
‘Please Don’t Slow Down’
For every person asking legislators not to rush, there were those who encouraged them to keep up the pace.
Paul D’Agostino, a self-described Newtown dad, was one. “Please don’t slow down,” he said to applause.
Legislation is simply a means to an end and is not the ultimate goal, he said. “They’re outcomes we’re trying to effect,” he told the legislators.
D’Agostino then suggested the task force think about the longer term -- five to 10 years out -- and create some sort of enduring body that would be charged with reviewing any newly created legislation to track its progress and mitigate any unintended consequences. “I hate to see it be a one-and-done situation,” he said.
Cafero, a 20-year legislator, said the task force has not discussed that possibility yet. He explained that legislators are constantly reviewing the performance of bills, but priorities often shift with each session.
Another father, Darren Wagner of Sandy Hook, said, “Please continue at your pace.”
Wagner, who said he left a career in law enforcement after suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), added, “I want action. It’s not too soon.”
In response to the competing timelines from residents, Po Murray, the co-chair of Newtown Action Alliance, told Patch after the meeting, “I think there are more of us that want action.”
State Rep. Dan Carter, R-2, said, “We’re trying our very best not to ramrod this through.”
What’s On the Table?
While the question of ‘when’ loomed large Tuesday night, the other topic on people’s minds was what are the proposals the Task Force is leaning toward. And like with the timeline, residents had different ideas about what is needed -- and what isn’t.
While the Task Force is looking at three issues, much of the discussion centered around guns, gun laws and gun violence.
All six legislators repeatedly said that they have talked about every angle and possibility that one can come up with, and that all options are on the table. It is the areas where there is common ground that they will seek to take immediate action.
One such area, legislators said and the majority of residents who spoke seemed to agree, is putting in place a permit process for purchasing “long guns,” like rifles and shotguns. Currently, in Connecticut, a permit is only required when purchasing a handgun -- and that includes a background check as well as a mandatory safety class.
Other gun-related proposals discussed, some similar to those proposed by President Barack Obama, include:
- Assault rifle ban
- Magazine limits
- Universal background check
- Tighter regulations around sales
- Gun offender registry program
- Gun buy back programs
Other residents urged legislators to first review existing gun laws and better enforce them before enacting new ones, some noting that criminals do not follow laws and, therefore, law-abiding citizens are the ones who suffer and who, potentially, could be put at greater risk.
Another resident suggested that legislators consider using civil liability as a tool. “We have strict liability for dog owners, but not for gun owners,” she said.
Donald Borsch Jr., of Bethel, a self-described “filthy, registered Libertarian Independent,” posed a series of rhetorical questions, asking legislators if they will be able to guarantee no more gun violence, and then said, “You can’t legislate morality.”
In response, McKinney drew the loudest applause of the night when he said he would never stand up and say legislation will stop all gun violence, but that the state should do whatever it can to make Connecticut safer.
The Process Moving Forward
The Task Force has already held four hearings, including one in Newtown, as it has sought to gather public input on the issues. The subcommittees are working on their final proposals, which will then be considered by the full task force.
Legislators in attendance Tuesday night said they expect the full package of proposals to be the subject of a final public hearing before it goes to the floor for a vote. They further related that it’s likely there will be at least three separate bills, one for each issue, and possibly other related bills that will move through the process, too.
A Model for Washington
As the meeting ran its course, legislators and residents began to remark and compliment each other about how civil and open-minded everyone was being. “I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing tonight,” said one gun owner.
“These issues and this event hit all of us in a way that we realize we shouldn’t be doing those types of things,” McKinney said, referring to the partisanship that has plagued Washington and, at times, reared its head in Hartford.
“Meaningful change can arrive in Connecticut, and Newtown can drive it,” said state Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-106, who districts includes about 90 percent of Newtown.
Reflecting on the night, Murray said she was appreciative of how cordial the speakers were. She was particularly pleased that gun owners had come to share their thoughts. “I think it went really well. I’m feeling optimistic,” she said.
Admittedly new to the entire process, earlier in the evening, Murray called herself and those involved in Newtown Action Alliance “accidental activists.”