HARTFORD, Conn. – On March 1, about a week after Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy expressed frustration with the General Assembly’s pace at addressing the Newtown school shooting and unveiled his own gun control proposals, the top two Senate Democrats surprised their fellow leaders by publicly pressing for a vote no later than March 13.
The leaders had not yet begun their negotiations to craft a bill based on a legislative task force’s recommendations on gun violence, school security and mental health.
“In Connecticut, we must not bow to pressure from those who would delay action as a way of blocking common sense reforms,” wrote Senate President Donald Williams Jr. and Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney.
It would be one of the first of several challenges over the coming weeks for Connecticut lawmakers who had agreed in the days following the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that they needed a bipartisan legislative response to the shooting, which left 20 first-graders and six educators dead.
While the final bill that was signed into law Thursday is being hailed as a bipartisan success and a model for Congress to follow, lawmakers acknowledge there were times when it all could have unraveled.
NEW SPEAKER IN TOUGH SPOT
Back in March, Brendan Sharkey, the state’s new speaker of the house — on the job for just two months — was in a tough spot.
Gun control advocates were already urging him to use the power of the majority Democrats and push through legislation, bypassing the GOP.
They were accusing Sharkey — a gun control proponent himself — of being soft on the issue and possibly harming their best chance in years because of his pledge to try to reach a bipartisan agreement.
But Sharkey said he still felt a deal with the Republicans was possible and the right thing, and that the leaders should at least give it a chance.
So he pushed ahead with the planned first meeting.
“I was out on a limb politically. Please keep in mind, I’m the new guy,” Sharkey said in an interview with The Associated Press. “So I was feeling a lot of pressure, obviously. It was kind of a pretty lonely place to be at the time.”
The six men who oversee the House of Representatives and Senate held their first closed- door meeting on March 6.
The goal, Sharkey said, was simply to keep everyone in the room.
GOP SAYS IT’S OPEN TO TALKING
That first meeting wound up being crucial, he said, because the legislature’s top two Republican leaders, House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr. of Norwalk and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield, whose district includes Newtown, signaled that they were open to negotiations on some of the most contentious issues: expanding the state’s assault weapons ban and banning high-capacity ammunition magazines.
After that, the meetings continued.
Lawmakers acknowledge the talks faltered several times. There were disagreements over how to craft the assault weapons ban and whether legislators should rely on a California definition of assault weapons features they were trying to ban.
“We had pictures all over the table of the different kinds of guns, with examples of what constitutes a pistol grip, how the manufacturers had sort of worked around that prohibition from other states,” Sharkey said.
‘WE JUST KEPT WORKING AT IT’
The lawmakers wanted to make sure they didn’t create unintended loopholes for the manufacturers to use. Some had their staff go to Cabela’s, the massive East Hartford outdoor store, to learn more about specific guns. Some lawmakers conducted independent research on various weapons and their mechanics.
“It was a moment where, again, the whole thing could have blown up. But we just kept working at it to try to figure out how to define this thing,” Sharkey said.
Cafero, he said, came up with the idea of defining assault weapons by the action of the gun.
But it was an 11 p.m. phone call to a state police gun expert that helped them figure out the specific part of the gun to identify in the bill.
By that point in the talks, the leaders had learned to trust one another and were reluctant to walk away.
“I don’t believe that anyone in the room ever gave up their commitment to try to get something done together,” McKinney said. “And it was because we all had that commitment and everybody was willing to compromise that we ended up with a bipartisan package.”
Williams said there also was a potential impasse over the language banning high-capacity magazines. He said some in the room opposed changes. But in the end, the new law bans the sale of magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition and allows owners of existing large magazines to register them with the state police by Jan. 1.
“We could have parted company and the negotiations could have ended, and instead we stayed at the table and resolved those challenges,” he said. “Folks realized there was more at stake than just a partisan Connecticut issue, that the eyes of the nation truly were looking toward Connecticut, and how we handled this was going to make a difference not only for our state but perhaps for the country.”