Federal assault weapon ban, yes. State confiscation, no.
Congress should have never let the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act — more commonly known as the assault weapons ban — expire when it “sunset” in 2004 after being in place for 10 years. Instead, Congress, by closing loopholes, should have strengthened the act that prohibited the manufacture or sale of a variety of semi-automatic weapons.
These weapons, designed to make it easy to kill a lot of people fast, have no business being in the hands of civilians and should be reserved for military and law enforcement use. The nation has witnessed the repeated use of these weapons in mass murders, including 10 years ago when a young shooter slaughtered 20 first graders and six educators in their elementary school in Newtown.
We continue to call on Congress to reinstall a federal assault weapons ban. It has the support of the entire Connecticut Senate and congressional delegation, all Democrats. But the reality is that the votes are not in place to make that happen. The grip of the gun lobby remains too strong on the Republican Party and on a considerable number of Democrats. If Democrats could not get a ban passed with narrow control of the Senate and House of Representatives, it is not going to happen with Republicans now holding a slim majority in the House.
Connecticut residents should take solace in the fact that, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, state lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — took the correct and courageous step to defy the gun lobby and pass a law banning the sale of AR-15-style semiautomatic weapons in this state. The ban has stood up against all legal challenges.
One provision that contributed to the bipartisan compromise banning these weapons was the grandfathering of existing ownership. Gun owners who bought a semiautomatic rifle when the purchase was legal could, and still can, keep those weapons. The federal ban, passed in 1994 and that Congress let expire a decade later, likewise grandfathered existing ownership.
Now Gov. Ned Lamont, following up on statements made during the recent campaign, says he wants the General Assembly to fully outlaw semiautomatic rifle, which would mean confiscating the guns from existing owners in a buy-back program.
Such a move would be a mistake.
It would violate the spirit of the political compromise that led to passage of the gun-control law, among the strongest in the nation. The resulting distrust would make it harder to achieve future bipartisan agreement on difficult matters, particularly involving firearms. Confiscation would be highly provocative and controversial, without any straightforward evidence that it would significantly reduce the chances of mass-shooting events. There has been no outbreak of irresponsible behavior by gun owners allowed to keep their semiautomatic rifles.
There appears to be little support for Lamont’s proposal, including among fellow Democrats. Facing that political reality, Lamont would be better off focusing on other measures to reduce gun violence. These steps could include better use and enforcement of red-flag laws that allow the seizure of weapons from individuals whose actions target themselves as dangerous, such as domestic violence or threatening behavior in a workplace.
Exploring and debating ways to address the plague of continued gang violence in several of Connecticut’s cities — with handguns the preferred weapon in most of these murders — should be another legislative priority.
There is much Lamont and the legislature can accomplish on the issue of gun violence without opening a new and needless culture war with Second Amendment advocates.