Senate OKs gun bill; House debate continues late into the night

Gun advocates, including state residents, NRA members and the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen filled the state Capitol hallways Wednesday as they waited to enter the Senate chamber gallery to watch the vote on the gun bill. Some held signs that read, "Shall Not Be Infringed," "The Real Issue is Mental Health" and "Connecticut the Uncon-stitutional State." Only a handful could be seen supporting the gun control measures.
Gun advocates, including state residents, NRA members and the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen filled the state Capitol hallways Wednesday as they waited to enter the Senate chamber gallery to watch the vote on the gun bill. Some held signs that read, "Shall Not Be Infringed," "The Real Issue is Mental Health" and "Connecticut the Uncon-stitutional State." Only a handful could be seen supporting the gun control measures. Johanna Somers The Day Buy Photo

After a six-hour debate on the gun control, mental health and school safety bill Wednesday, the state Senate voted 26-10 in favor of the bill and sent it to the House.

The 151 House legislators debated the bill late into the night.

"The tragedy in Newtown demands a powerful response. It demands a response that transcends politics," Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said Wednesday.

Legislators in favor of the bill said they recognized that no one was completely happy with the bill, but that it was a response to the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and would be the most comprehensive bill in the nation to address gun control, mental health and school safety.

Those opposed said the bill would not prevent another Newtown tragedy and that mental health issues should have been addressed more strongly.

By 11:50 p.m., four of southeastern Connecticut's representatives said they would vote in favor of the bill.

State Rep. Elissa Wright, R-Groton, said the legislation strikes a balance between public safety and the Second Amendment. Reps. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, and Edward Moukawsher, D-Groton, also said they would be voting yes. They said the bill wasn't perfect but it addressed the tragedy of Newtown.

Reps. Timothy Bowles, D-Preston, and Kevin Ryan, D-Oakdale, said they would be voting against the bill because of their constituents. Reps. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, and Emmett Riley, D-Norwich, said they had no comment on how they would vote, while Reps. Brian Sear, D-Canterbury, and Ed Jutila, D-Niantic, could not be reached to comment.

In the Senate, six of the 14 Republicans and 20 of the 22 Democrats voted in favor of the bill. The two Democrats who opposed the bill were state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, and state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague.

"I went out and I talked to people on every side of the issue for the last two-and-a-half months, and at the end of that process, I had to cast the most challenging vote of my legislative career," Maynard said.

The people who have committed mass murders in the recent past have been young men who seemed socially isolated and appeared to be taking their frustrations out on the world, he said. This bill addresses responsible gun owners in the state and wouldn't actually prevent a tragedy such as Newtown from occurring again, Maynard said.

"I think people hell-bent on doing these kinds of acts are not the sort of people who will pay much attention to new laws," Maynard said.

Osten said there is a clear problem with mental health services in this state. Adam Lanza was troubled for years and was ignored, she said.

"Adam Lanza was the one who killed those 20 young children and six adults," Osten said. "He is the one we should hold accountable today, not the legal gun owners in this state."

Williams said the bill does address mental health issues and "for those saying we cannot move forward on gun proposals because it (the tragedy) is all about mental health, I would strongly disagree."

If the laws under discussion and vote Wednesday had been in effect before the Sandy Hook massacre, Lanza's mother could not have purchased an AR-15 type assault rifle or high-capacity magazines with more than 10 rounds, Williams said.

Not enough or too far

Newtown parents attending the session said the bill was a good start, but there is still more to be done.

Nearly in tears, Jessica Pinkney, whose daughter is a first-grader at Middle Gate Elementary in Newtown, said, "My daughter … she starts soccer up again this spring, and it's very sad because there are five girls that won't be playing soccer anymore, and it's just upsetting."

Her niece was in one of the Sandy Hook classrooms during the shooting. She survived, but she heard everything that happened and is now having night terrors, Pinkney said.

"My mom lost her best friend, Mary Sherlach," Pinkney said. "We have been friends with the Sherlachs for 30 years."

Sherlach was the school psychologist at Sandy Hook, one of six adults killed that day at the school.

Her husband, William Sherlach, was one of the family members of Sandy Hook victims who came to the state Capitol on Monday to ask that a ban on the possession of high-capacity magazines with more than 10 rounds be included in the bill.

That measure did not make it into the proposal.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who represents Newtown, said he couldn't adequately describe how he felt after the bill was passed in the Senate.

"There have been a lot of hours put into the bill, a lot of hours put into meeting with people, talking to people, whether it is (a) town hall meeting or public meetings or with experts," he said.

There are still people who think the bill goes too far and others who think it doesn't go far enough, he said. Citizens and elected officials will continue to have the right to advocate for their beliefs, he said.

Constituent input

The Capitol was filled with hundreds of gun advocates throughout the day who opposed the bill. They came to have their voices heard, said Robert Crook, executive director for the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen.

Constituents could be the reason senators voted as they did on Wednesday, said state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, who voted in favor of the bill.

"I am sure constituent input had certainly some influence on the way we all voted," she said.

Osten said many from the rural 19th District have reached out to her. This bill puts people who purchase weapons for hunting and competition at risk, she said.

Osten said she would like to say that the bill makes changes so that "no one would have to see another dead 6-year-old, that no one would have to respond to a tragedy as significant as what happened down at Sandy Hook. But this legislation does not provide that protection, in my opinion. It puts at risk legal gun owners."

As a former correction officer, she said one of the problems is that criminals are able to bargain away the gun charges against them. "We can create a registry of those who commit crimes, but if we don't find them guilty of weapons charges, the registry will be left empty," she said. The bill proposes a statewide dangerous weapons offender registry.

She said this bill also does nothing to stop the daily gun violence in urban cities.

State Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, said the bill created "unnecessary harm" for law-abiding citizens.

"I do believe we need to head in the direction of improving our mental health system in the state of Connecticut," he said.

The bill, House Bill 1160, proposes universal background checks, an expansion of the assault weapons ban and a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. The bill also requires background checks for the purchase of ammunition.

The bill would expand mental health programs and more tightly monitor how insurance companies provide mental health services. Schools would have access to more funds for school security infrastructure and would be required to maintain safety plans.

j.somers@theday.com

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