Impatience Showing On Gun Legislation

The louder the public pledges of bipartisan cooperation and resolve, the deeper the undercurrents of private distrust and resentment — or at least, that often seems to be the rule in legislative politics.

And it seems to be taking hold as the Connecticut General Assembly seeks to fulfill its commitment, stated in January, to pass emergency legislation on gun control and other issues arising from the Dec. 14 Newtown school massacre.

At the end of last week, as the legislature missed its admittedly optimistic deadline of passing an emergency bill by the end of February, fractures began to show.

On the 50-member, bipartisan legislative Newtown task force that was formed in mid-January, a couple of top Democratic Senate leaders broke out of what had been a prevalent, walk-on-eggs approach to which lawmakers from both parties stuck for six weeks.

Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams and Majority Leader Martin Looney expressed dissatisfaction with the slow pace of the task force in achieving a consensus on what should go into the bill — particularly with regard to controversial proposals such as beefing up a ban on assault weapons and limiting ammunition magazines to 10 bullets or less.

And, in an unusual move, they aimed their message not only at the usual targets — Republican legislative leaders — but also their fellow Democrats, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey and House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz.

It's another example of how the numbers always assert themselves in the legislature sooner or later, no matter how high-minded the original pledges of cooperation across the aisle, and regardless of the seriousness of the public cause involved. Democrats enjoy majorities of nearly 2 to 1 in both the House and Senate.

Their gun-control agenda — and that of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy — is more ambitious than that of most Republicans. Eventually, they were going to push for what they want. And that's what appears to be coming in the next two weeks.

In a letter sent Friday, Williams and Looney said they want the subcommittees of the Newtown legislative task force to submit recommendations by Tuesday, so legislative leaders can "begin negotiations … at 3 p.m." that same day on provisions of a comprehensive emergency bill responding to the killing of 20 first-graders and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

The gun violence subcommittee of the task force is due to submit its long-awaited recommendations earlier Tuesday.

The two Democratic senators sent the letter to their fellow Democrats in charge of the House, Sharkey and Aresimowicz — and to Senate Republican Leader John McKinney and House Republican Leader Larry Cafero. All six leaders — Williams, Looney, Sharkey, Aresimowicz, McKinney, and Cafero — are co-chairs of the 50-member bipartisan Newtown task force, and thus are equals.

But it is the two top Senate Democrats, Williams and Looney, who now have made a big move to drive this legislative bus. It's an audacious move in the eyes of some at the Capitol who were unwilling to voice their feelings publicly and start an unseemly fight.

Williams and Looney wrote Friday that when the task force was formed in January, "leaders from both parties pledged to work diligently toward the goal of taking action by the end of February," which was Thursday. "The deadline is here but unfortunately Connecticut is still waiting for results. The time to act is now. ... We should vote on a bill no later than Wednesday, March 13th."

They went on: "Since the tragedy in Newtown, legislators from both parties have acknowledged that the eyes of the nation are on Connecticut. During the past six weeks legislators have spent many hours listening to public testimony, learning from experts, and sharing ideas. Ultimately our colleagues identified many common-sense solutions. Governor Malloy has also offered his own proposals.

"Other states — New York, Colorado, and Maryland — have taken action since the Newtown tragedy. In Connecticut, we must not bow to pressure from those who would delay action as a way of blocking common sense reforms. Please accept our invitation to meet on Tuesday to move forward with the strong and comprehensive measures to protect our children and communities."

Now, it's one thing for the Democratic Senate leaders to address such a prodding letter, seeking to call the legislative tune and sounding like a partisan press release, to Republican leaders. But it's not normal for them to direct it at their Democratic counterparts in the House, Sharkey and Aresimowicz.

Williams has been expressing dissatisfaction with the pace of action, however, and Friday's letter is the apparent result.

In an interview with The Courant Thursday, Williams said, "Frankly, I'm losing patience," and that the emergency bill should include an expanded and strengthened ban on assault weapons and a 10-round limit on high-capacity ammunition magazines. Newtown killer Adam Lanza used 30-round magazines with his Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, which, despite its military look, is not covered by the state's existing assault-weapons ban.

It is unclear whether there is bipartisan support for the expanded assault weapons ban and limit on magazines — which also would be accompanied by proposals to improve the state's mental health system and beef up school security. But Williams said the assault weapons ban and the limitations on magazines should be approved, with or without Republicans' support, this month.

Williams' growing impatience has put a noticeable distance between his approach and that of his Democratic counterpart in the House — Sharkey, the speaker.

Sharkey has been discussing the potential legislation in more moderate terms than the Senate leaders. He said this week that if bipartisan consensus can't be reached on provisions of the emergency bill to be passed in mid-March, he would set aside a day or two in May for House consideration of additional provisions that Democrats want to approve by the normal, non-emergency process.

But Williams, with unusual bluntness in relation to a fellow Democratic leader, called that a bad idea: "For us to pass a weak bill, and then say that maybe we'll get around [in May] to doing the things that we should have done now … I think would be a disaster for the state of Connecticut."

Asked for a reaction to Williams' comment and Friday's letter, Sharkey's staff spokesman, Larry Perosino, said that the speaker's position hadn't changed: He will sign on to an emergency-certified bill only with provisions approved by the bipartisan task force. "Speaker Sharkey has been committed to the work of the bipartisan task force, and will only sign an e-certified bill that meets the consensus of the task force. And that consensus means there has to be some level of support from each caucus."

There are four legislative caucuses: House and Senate Democrats, and House and Senate Republicans.

The separation of Williams and Sharkey on the gun issue during the week was not lost on political observers. One veteran Democratic political operative noted that Looney, one of the Friday letter's co-authors, is co-chairman of the task force's key committee on gun violence — the one that probably has irked Williams the most with the slowness of its deliberations.

"I find it interesting that Senator Looney is sending that letter, because he is in effect telling himself to get off the dime," the Democrat said.

Meanwhile, a prominent group of gun control activists in the state is calling on Sharkey to join with Williams and help break the deadlock on Malloy's gun proposals.

"House Speaker Sharkey has been patient in trying to reach a consensus with the Task Force, but it is becoming apparent that a consensus on comprehensive reforms cannot be reached," said Ron Pinciaro, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence.

"Too much time has passed. The three-month anniversary of the Newtown incident is coming up on March 14," he said. "That date should be an absolute deadline for action in the form of a floor vote of the full membership on the Governor's proposals."

Pinciaro said the eyes of the nation are on the state.

"Speaker Sharkey must join with Senator Williams and Governor Malloy for action now," he said.

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