April 6, 2013

How Connecticut lawmakers wrangled a bipartisan gun deal

A commitment to passing reforms gets legislators from both sides over many potential barriers.

By SUSAN HAIGH The Associated Press

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.

Nancy Wyman, Neil Heslin, Dannel P. Malloy, Nicole Hockley
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Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, center, finishes signing legislation that includes new restrictions on weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines, at the Capitol in Hartford, Conn., on Thursday. Malloy is applauded by Neil Heslin, father of Sandy Hook shooting victim Jesse Lewis, third from left, Nicole Hockley, right, mother of Sandy Hook School shooting victim Dylan, and Conn. Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.

The Associated Press

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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.


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.


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.


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.

(Continued on page 2)

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