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New London — U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., fielded a range of questions at a town hall-style meeting Saturday, from the military's use of unmanned drones to the impact of the budget impasse on the region's economy.
But the conversation returned time and time again to the divisive issue of gun laws.
More than 170 people attended the event at the Science & Technology Magnet School. Most were local residents, but Murphy's staff members said 10 to 20 people in the audience had been following the freshman senator to around the state in an effort to advance their agenda.
The freshman senator responded to questions that had been submitted on index cards and lingered after the 1½-hour meeting to speak individually with constituents. Police officers stood in the back of the room, ready to keep the peace if necessary, but it was the civilians in the audience who helped Murphy regain control when necessary. They shouted "sit down" and "let him talk" to one man who protested at length about the format of the meeting.
Nearly every other question concerned guns.
"How will banning sporting rifles decrease crime?" one person asked.
Murphy's response, that the decade-long federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 had resulted in both a decrease in gun crimes and crime in general, prompted jeers from audience members who said, "That's a lie."
At other times, the gun rights advocates commented loudly that lawmakers and other groups advancing gun reform are "exploiting grief" from the Newtown tragedy and trying to take away the rights of citizens.
Murphy said he supports better background checks for potential gun buyers and a ban of military-style assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines. He said existing laws need to be enforced better and harsh penalties should be imposed on those who buy and sell guns illegally. He also said he wants to improve community-based mental health programs and to address the topic of violent video games.
Murphy said the average age of a person committing a gun crime is 19, and young urban men growing up in poverty need something other than a gun in their hands to feel empowered.
"I'm not suggesting you are going to wipe violent crime off the earth," he said. The goal, he said, is to make it "a little less likely" that something like the Newtown massacre happens again.
Control towers, Medicare
Chet Moore of New London, the air traffic manager at the Groton-New London Airport, said he was able to convey to Murphy his concern about the potential closing of control towers across the country, including Groton's, on April 8 due to the sequester.
"You are going to see so many delays it will be unprecedented," Moore said. He noted the airport in Groton brings $15 million to $25 million in business to the region each year.
Moore said he was disappointed by the "Tea Party activists" who disrupted the meeting.
"To yell at an elected official shows a lack of respect for the entire system," Moore said.
Murphy, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would be arguing for additions to the military budget that would ensure the continued production of two Virginia-class submarines a year at Electric Boat and the continued development of Ohio-class subs as well as the continued production in the state of jet engines and other military hardware.
"How do you expect your children and grandchildren to pay for the $16 billion debt and Social Security and Medicare obligations?" one audience member asked.
Murphy said Social Security does not add to the deficit and there is a simple solution to keep it viable. He said the nation is only collecting Social Security on the first $100,000 in income, or about 82 percent of all income, and suggested raising the cap so Social Security is collected on 90 percent of income.
With regard to Medicare, Murphy said he opposes raising the retirement age, which would force millions of people back into the job market. The audience cheered when he noted that was an easy solution for those who work behind desks, but not those who work "with their hands or their backs or their legs."
Speaking of the nation's fragmented health care system, Murphy said there are efficient delivery systems that, if replicated nationally, would help resolve the underfunding of the Medicare program. He said the system rewards the performance of medical procedures rather than providing quality health care.
"Flip that presumption," he said. "Have money track health rather than the value of procedures."
Some in the audience jeered when the discussion turned to global warming, but Murphy said the country needs to find renewable energy sources and tap its enormous natural gas resources.
"It's not six degrees of separation when you talk about filling your tank and funding military training schools for fundamentalist Jihadists," he said.
Regarding the high price of gas, Murphy said he supports limiting trading on the commodity markets so that speculators cannot drive up the price.
One audience member asked how Murphy and his colleagues could represent such a divided constituency. Murphy said "a ton of people" who represent the middle ground on many issues are so busy or so turned off that they don't pay attention to what is happening in Washington. He said there is "way too much influence" from those who spend a lot of money on elections.
His solution is to "change the way we run elections. Change the way we fund elections."
Several members of the state delegation, including state Sen. Andrea L. Stillman, D-20th District; state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington; and state Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, attended the meeting and took questions from the audience. New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio also made an appearance.
"I think it means a lot to New London that after less than three months in office, Senator Murphy has been here three times," Finizio said. "It really speaks of his commitment to the city and our region."