HARTFORD — Flanked by family members of Newtown massacre victims and the legislative leaders who spent months trying to respond to their tragedy, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a sweeping gun-control bill Thursday whose big provisions — such as a strengthened assault weapons ban — took effect with the stroke of his pen.
The bill, signed about 12:20 p.m. at a ceremony in a packed state Capitol meeting room, had received final legislative approval shortly before 2:30 a.m. in the House, about eight hours after the Senate had approved it.
Legislative leaders in both parties negotiated the bipartisan bill — viewed as one of the toughest in the nation — after the shooting deaths of 20 first-graders and six women on Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
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"This is a profoundly emotional day, I think, for everyone in this room and everyone watching what is transpiring today in the state of Connecticut," Malloy said before sitting down at a table and signing the bill, bit by bit, with a succession of pens that were then passed to Newtown family members and lawmakers as souvenirs of the historic moment.
"We have come together in a way that relatively few places in our nation have demonstrated an ability to do," Malloy said. "In some senses, I hope that this is an example to the rest of the nation — certainly to our leaders in Washington, who seem so deeply divided about an issue such as universal background checks, where the country is not divided itself."
"When 92 percent of Americans agree that every gun sale should be subject to a background check" — as required in the new Connecticut law, but not in federal law — "then there's no excuse for representatives or senators who don't come to the assistance of those that they are elected to represent," Malloy said.
His remarks anticipated a visit to Hartford on Monday afternoon by President Barack Obama, who will continue his public effort to push Congress to enact tougher gun laws in the aftermath of Newtown. Obama made a gun-control speech Wednesday in Colorado.
The Democrat-led effort to pass stronger gun legislation in Washington has been faltering, and proponents hope that Connecticut's new gun law will become an example for other state legislatures — and members of the U.S. House and Senate — to emulate. The Senate will take up a limited package of firearms restrictions, including expanded background checks, next week.
Bursts of applause, and a few tears, punctuated Thursday's bill-signing in the ornate Old Judiciary Room on the Capitol's third floor — as the pro-gun-control crowd of 150 or so recognized police and the other first-responders of Dec. 14, as well as the Newtown residents who lost family members.
"You may not have seen me welling up before, when I was meeting with the families," House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, told reporters after the ceremony. "It wasn't, I think, until the bill was actually signed that it washed over me that we had done this. And it was very significant, a tremendous relief. It's been a very pressure-filled couple of months, recognizing that we needed to do something for these families."
Several Newtown family members sat in chairs behind Malloy, including Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan, 6, on Dec. 14. She said that she never thought that she would become involved in gun legislation, and never expected to meet President Obama or Vice President Joe Biden. "On Monday, I signed my first letter to a legislator,'' she said. "This is a path I never thought my life would take.''
Next week, Hockley will travel to Washington to press her case for federal action on gun control. It will be the latest in a series of private meetings that Sen. Richard Blumenthal and other members of Connecticut's congressional delegation have brokered between Newtown family members and federal lawmakers.
"We're going to make sure my colleagues hear from these families and the Newtown community as we've been doing all along,'' said Blumenthal, one of several congressional representatives who attended Thursday's signing. "I've arranged meetings with my colleagues privately, off-the-record, in their offices, some with me present, some without ... and we're going to continue those kinds of contact because they are so much more powerful and effective than any of us elected officials."
"Who can sit with them for more than a couple of minutes without the searing emotional fact of their grief?" Blumenthal said. "We're going to make sure that their voices are heard."
Sen. John McKinney, the Republican leader in the Senate whose district includes Newtown and was a key proponent of the bill, said a few minutes after Malloy put down his pens, "I think all the work we did was good work.''
Asked if there was ever a time during the lengthy negotiations when he thought that a deal might not happen, McKinney said, "Yeah … honestly, there were a lot of moments ... there were a number of issues on each of the three subject matters, from the gun violence issue ... issues surrounding confiscation, for example, were difficult to talk about. With mental health there were difficult issues ... people's civil liberties issues on school security. ... I think there were very difficult issues that presented a lot of problems."
But, McKinney said, "Because nobody lost their commitment to reach an agreement, we were able to reach [one.]"
Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, the highest-ranking senator, said he always had hopes that legislators could reach their goal of a strong, comprehensive bill.
"There were many points when this bipartisan process could have blown up," Williams said after the bill signing. "We did truly put aside partisanship ... as opposed to the usual divisive political partisanship that we see at the national level."
The new law immediately expands the state's existing, but porous, ban on assault weapons to include a long list of new firearms — including the Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle that Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook shootings.
It also requires universal background checks for purchasers of all firearms, even transactions between private individuals. Also, the sale and purchase of large-capacity ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds — such as the 30-round magazines used by Lanza — are prohibited, effective immediately.
People who owned those large-capacity magazines before the law took effect don't have to turn them in, although their use will be restricted and they must be registered with the state by Jan. 1, 2014. Likewise, people who already own semiautomatic rifles now defined as assault weapons can keep them if they submit to new registration procedures.
Beginning Oct. 1, all purchases of ammunition and long guns will require an eligibility certificate. To obtain certification to buy ammunition, purchasers also must pass a federal criminal background check. For the first time, a dangerous weapon offender registry will be created, and penalties for illegal gun trafficking will be expanded.