Newtown set the tone for legislative session

Hartford - It was the legislative session during which grown men and women cried before lawmakers, young family members of Newtown victims turned to advocacy for the first time and legislators passed bipartisan gun control legislation previously thought unattainable.

With bills on issues ranging from school safety to changes to Connecticut's Freedom of Information laws to mental health intervention for young people, legislators responded throughout the session to the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School where Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults in December.

"For me, ever since some time around 10 o'clock that morning (Dec. 14), my focus has been on those 26 families, the parents, the survivors, kids at the school, teachers, administrators of the school, people of Newtown pretty, almost, the sole focus," said state Sen. John McKinney, R-Fairfield, whose district includes Newtown.

The shooting affected all lawmakers from the governor to the newest state legislator. It changed the operations at the Capitol in ways as large as encouraging a bipartisan effort on the deficit mitigation bill to actions as small as modifying the use of violent words.

Words and phrases such as "bullet points," "trigger," "shot an email," "cross hairs," "silver bullet," "loaded" were all reconsidered, said state Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford.

"I think it is a reflection of the degree to which we are comfortable with analogies that tend to take that route," she said, referring to an acceptance of violence in society.

She said she discussed with lawmakers alternative words that might be used to consciously push back, but that they were having a hard time finding good solutions. For example, they tossed around the idea of saying "points," "points of interest" and "points of emphasis," instead of "bullet points." "Points of emphasis" is too long, she admitted.

Newtown didn't simply affect the language culture at the Capitol. It also caused Republicans and Democrats to come together on more bills than during many other legislative sessions.

"On Friday, Dec. 14 of 2012, many of us were up here that day in negotiations and discussions on the deficit mitigation bill, which passed on a bipartisan basis five days after the Newtown tragedy," said state Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, on Thursday. "That set the tone in many ways for the first part of our session."

In the first half of the session, the legislature passed and the governor signed what they called the most comprehensive gun control legislation in the country.

The bill required universal background checks, expanded Connecticut's assault weapons ban, limited large-capacity magazines to 10 rounds and required a state-issued certificate to purchase ammunition, rifles and shotguns.

The bill also expanded mental health programs and more tightly monitors how insurance companies provide mental health services. Schools were given access to more funds for school security infrastructure and were required to maintain safety plans.

To get to that piece of legislation, which Looney said could have been 10 separate bills, the legislature quickly formed the Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety. The task force was broken into three working groups that each held separate public hearings and one joint hearing at Newtown High School.

Impassioned speakers kept the public hearing on gun violence going for 13 hours. At the hearing, mostly filled with advocates of gun ownership, Neil Heslin, father of 6-year-old Newtown victim Jesse Lewis, shared his story.

"He gave me a hug and a kiss, and I gave him a kiss back, and he said, 'Goodbye,' he said, 'I love you,' he said, 'I love Mom, too,'" Heslin said. "We were supposed to go back and make gingerbread houses that day. We never made it. Twenty minutes after that, my son was dead. There is no reason for it."

Legislators had to balance the direct calls for gun control from many Newtown families with the crowds of gun advocates that flooded the Capitol throughout the session. Gun advocates said the legislation would take away their right to choose how to protect themselves and their constitutional rights, reduce jobs and not solve problems better addressed through mental health programs and school security.

"We began this session with the tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and the need to rise above that challenge and fashion not only a solution for Connecticut, but a model for the country," said Sen. Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, president pro tempore of the Senate.

'It will save lives'

It wasn't just the legislature that hoped to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again.

When the General Assembly wasn't moving fast enough for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, he laid out gun control proposals of his own, with Vice President Joe Biden at his side in Danbury.

"I am extremely proud to have been in the position to argue for and then sign what I believe is the most comprehensive gun legislation in the country as we sit here today," Malloy said on Thursday. "I absolutely believe it will save lives."

President Barack Obama made a number of appearances in Connecticut after the shooting and praised the state for leading the way.

"It is the only time in my legislative career we had the president of the United States fly to Hartford in the aftermath and say thank you," Williams said.

The comprehensive gun control bill wasn't all.

Legislators also passed a bill on mental health intervention toward the end of the session. The bill requires the state's Department of Children and Families to develop an implementation plan to address children's mental, emotional and behavioral health issues and to create a public information campaign on children's mental health issues. The bill also provides mental health services within the state's Birth-to-Three developmental disabilities program.

Nelba L. Marquez-Greene, mother of 6-year-old Newtown victim Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, was highly involved in the composition of the bill.

"This is a moment to turn tragedy into transformation," she said to legislators and the press last month.

Many family members of Newtown victims were proactive at the Capitol throughout the session, both at public hearings and behind closed doors.

They and Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane pushed for legislation to change the state's FOI laws and got a broad, controversial law passed without a public hearing.

It exempts photographs, film, video, digital or other images depicting a homicide victim from being part of the public record, if the record could reasonably be considered an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. The new law applies to all homicide victims as opposed to just the victims of Newtown, as proposed at one point.

"As a mom and as a person, I have no reason to see crime scene photos from any crime, and I would love personally to see a law that protects everyone, every other parent, every other child," said Nicole Hockley, mother of 6-year-old Newtown victim Dylan Hockley.

There was also $50 million authorized in the state's bond package for rebuilding Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"After the events of Dec. 14, everyone in this building from governor on down to the newest elected state senator and state rep made a commitment to help the people of Sandy Hook," McKinney said.

The community has decided to raze the building and build a new school on the same site, he added.

Jillian Soto, younger sister of 27-year-old Newtown victim Victoria Soto, was one of the young adults who turned advocate after Newtown.

"For me, Vicki was a hero long before Sandy Hook. She didn't need to die to prove that to me," she said to a crowd of 5,000 in February.

Williams said, "We listened very carefully to the parents and the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School. They made a tremendous difference and they moved the debate in Connecticut, and I think when we look back years from now we will be able to say that they moved the debate across this country."

j.somers@theday.com

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