After an extraordinary week of hearings last month before the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, the three working groups of the General Assembly's Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Child Safety and the full task force in Newtown, legislators must now tackle the issue of gun violence.
Although differing in some respects, the mass shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora and Newtown share an essential feature: All were carried out by young men with very serious psychological problems who had access to rapid-fire guns, high-capacity ammunition magazines and large amounts of ammunition.
At Sandy Hook, Adam Lanza, armed with his mother's semiautomatic rifle and at least a half-dozen 30-round ammunition magazines, fired more than 150 rounds in less than seven minutes.
Part of the response must involve substantial improvement in the mental health resources available to the towns and cities to identify and treat young people with serious psychological problems and ensure that those who pose a threat to others receive treatment.
The response also must involve ensuring that those who present a risk to others are not able to purchase or have access to guns and ammunition. This means improving the state's porous firearm permit process, extending it to the purchase of ammunition, and facilitating the flow of information from mental health providers to the law enforcement personnel who conduct background checks.
And another part of the response — undoubtedly the most contested — involves strengthening the state's laws concerning guns and ammunition. Compared with those of most states, Connecticut's gun laws are quite good. Indeed, the California-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranks the state's laws fourth, after those of California, Massachusetts and New Jersey. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence ranks the state fifth, after California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York.
But there are some glaring shortcomings. The state doesn't limit the capacity of ammunition magazines. California, New Jersey and Massachusetts prohibit the sale or possession of magazines holding more than 10 rounds. Last month, New York lowered the maximum capacity to seven rounds and Massachusetts will soon do the same.
Connecticut doesn't require that anyone buying ammunition have a firearms permit. California, New Jersey and Massachusetts do. We don't require those selling ammunition to keep records of their sales. California and Massachusetts do. Further, Connecticut doesn't limit the bulk purchase of firearms or ammunition.
Although the state prohibits the sale and possession of assault weapons, it excludes from the definition semi-automatic rifles such as the one used at Newtown that have a detachable ammunition magazine and one "military" feature. California, New Jersey and New York include such rifles in their definitions.
Connecticut waives the two-week waiting period for delivery of a firearm other than a pistol or revolver if the buyer has a pistol permit or a hunting license. That means anyone with a firearm permit obtained five years earlier — permits are good for five years — or who is at least 18 and has a hunting license — can obtain a semiautomatic rifle immediately without waiting for a background check.
State legislators are rightly focused on what happened in Newtown. But it's important that they not forget that gun violence occurs in the state every day. The Centers for Disease Control report that in 2008-10, the latest three-year period for which data are available, there were 263 homicides by firearm in Connecticut. The vast majority occurred in the state's largest cities; in 2010-12, there were more than 200 homicides in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven; almost all were committed with a firearm.
The creation of shooting task forces in Hartford in 2011 and New Haven last year led to 50 percent reductions in the number of homicides in both cities last year. But there are still many gun-related homicides and non-fatal shootings.
No one is so naive as to imagine that, in a nation awash in guns that can and do move easily across state boundaries, strengthening the state's laws will end gun violence here. But the state owes it to the families who lost their children and loved ones at Newtown, and to all the families who have lost a loved one because of gun violence, to at least try.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale.