By JON LENDER, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
8:29 PM EST, March 6, 2013
If any legislature in the country had the political momentum to quickly pass strong gun control laws this year it seemed that Connecticut did, where 26 children and women were killed in the Newtown school massacre Dec. 14.
But as Connecticut legislators have sought a bipartisan agreement on guns, several other states, including New York, have taken steps toward enacting gun legislation in response to Newtown, raising questions about what could be holding back the General Assembly in Hartford – where Democrats favoring gun control dominate the legislature.
The reasons range from historical disagreements to present strategy – but they start with a two-month effort at bipartisanship that finally fell flat on Tuesday. The bipartisan theme was trumpeted in mid-January when legislative leaders formed a task force of 50 lawmakers – with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats – to study the issues raised by Newtown and recommend legislation in response.
"If you contrast what we've done in Connecticut to what happened in New York, I mean, we've had a process … with two parties [and] public hearings,'' said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams. "We didn't want a bill that would be put together by Democrats in a room, without the input of Republicans, and without an open and transparent process."
In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed through a package of gun laws in January after negotiating it behind closed doors.
On Tuesday, Republicans and Democrats on the task force's gun violence subcommittee couldn't agree on what firearms restrictions should go into the bill, and issued competing recommendations. Democrats pushed to tighten the existing assault weapons ban and outlaw ammunition magazines holding more than 10 bullets. Republicans left both those issues off their recommendations.
What's not clear is why Democrats, who have majorities of nearly 2 to 1 in the House and Senate, haven't used their power to push through the gun control restrictions they want. They're the same measures advocated by an increasingly impatient Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
"We know what needs to happen. The governor has said what needs to happen. The Democratic proposal says what needs to happen. We're approaching the third [month] anniversary of the massacre,'' said Betty Gallo, lobbyist for Connecticut Against Gun Violence. "We could act on these tomorrow."
What Gallo wants will probably happen, now that Tuesday's action by the task force subcommittee has put the fate of the gun control bill in the hands of six top legislative leaders, four of whom are Democrats.
Those leaders – the Democratic Senate president pro temp and majority leader, the Democratic House speaker and majority leader, and the Republican House and Senate minority leaders – began negotiating Wednesday on the recommendations to be presented to the House and Senate within a week or so.
The lawmakers emerged from their meeting shortly before 7 p.m. Wednesday to declare that they made progress. Leaders from both parties deemed the meeting productive, and said they plan to meet again Thursday at 11 a.m.
"It always looks better if you can get something bipartisan done ... I guess people were looking for unity [and felt] this is above politics because it was such a tragic event," said Douglas Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.
Schwartz released poll results Wednesday showing that Democrats have strong backing from the public for their gun control agenda. The poll showed that Connecticut voters support both an expansion of the assault weapons ban and a 10-round limit on magazines by identical percentages of 68 to 28. And, he said, although gun owners oppose both measures, it's by small percentage margins of 49 to 44 against an assault weapons ban and 49 to 48 against magazine limits.
Beyond that, Schwartz said, support is even greater for other gun control measures that Democrats and Republicans did manage to agree on in the task force – including universal background checks for purchases of all guns, by 93 to 6 percent; and expanded permit requirements for guns.
Those poll numbers reinforce the Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers that mean "they can pretty much do what they want,'' Schwartz said.
Meanwhile, both Republican leaders in the negotiations on the gun bill – House Minority Leader Larry Cafero and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney – are in delicate positions politically. Both are considering runs for governor next year. McKinney's Senate district includes Newtown. He is already on record supporting the 10-round limit for magazines, and says he supports expanding the assault weapons ban. Cafero says he'll reserve his public statements until after the negotiations, adding that people will know what he believes when he votes on the bill in the next week or two.
Public opinion puts pressure on Republicans to go along with the Democrats – even though bipartisanship on gun issues was always a tall order. Many observers said that Tuesday's failure by the task force subcommittee to agree on recommendations was understandable because there's been such a gulf on gun issues that no amount of bipartisan talk could bridge it.
Legislative Democrats are saying privately that if they don't pass a gun bill at least as strong as any other state's they will be criticized for letting citizens down in the state that was the scene of the massacre. They say that the media will skewer them if that happens. And they say that gun owners and Second Amendment advocates always skewer them, and will this time, too, no matter what legislation they pass.
Williams said he thinks Republican legislators will come around.
"Now the rubber meets the road," he said. "Now we get the leaders into the room."
Republicans might opt out, Williams said, "but what also might happen is folks might say there is a consensus. The consensus is what 68 percent of the people in Connecticut are saying [in Wednesday's Quinnipiac Poll]. They're saying [they want] a strong assault weapon ban [and to] ban high capacity magazines. … with 10 or more rounds.
"So we're going to have that discussion, and maybe we'll all be surprised at the outcome."
Courant staff writer Christopher Keating contributed to this story.
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