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Legislative Task Force Leaders: No Pressure To Keep Up With N.Y. In Passing Post-Newtown Gun Restrictions

By JON LENDER, jlender@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

7:57 PM EST, January 15, 2013

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General Assembly leaders, in announcing Tuesday the formation of a task force on the Newtown massacre, said they want to pass a major legislative response by the end of February but denied feeling pressured by New York state lawmakers' having already passed a measure to curb gun violence.

"I think that taking quick action is important, but taking smart action is more important," said House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden.

Sharkey made the comment at a Legislative Office Building press conference in which he and other House and Senate leaders announced formation of a "special bipartisan task force on gun violence prevention and children's safety." It is already being unofficially called the "super-committee" on guns.

The idea, Sharkey and the other leaders said, is to coordinate the efforts of various legislative committees to pass a comprehensive bill promptly.

Observers say the first legislation to be passed will probably seek to expand the state's existing ban on assault weapons, tighten background-check procedures for gun buyers and prohibit high-capacity ammunition magazines such as the 30-bullet magazines used Dec. 14 by Adam Lanza to kill 20 first-graders and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

The leaders said, however, that the first bill won't be the only one. That's because the task force will deal not only with gun control, but also with legislation to boost school security and improve the mental health system in hopes of identifying disturbed people like Lanza before they hurt others.

Such issues cannot be resolved in just the six weeks left before the end of February, but will require work going deeper into the legislative session, the lawmakers said. The session ends June 5.

The leaders said their task force would meet for the first time Friday. They also said it would work in concert with a special committee already appointed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to study the Newtown massacre and make legislative recommendations by March 15. Because the "super-committee" is intended to help the legislature pass a bill by Feb. 28, the legislative leaders said they would get whatever preliminary information they can from Malloy's panel by then.

Malloy's committee, led by Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson, will hold its first meeting Jan. 24.

At Tuesday's press conference, the leaders were asked by reporters if they feel added pressure because New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo already had reached an agreement with his state's legislators on a bill imposing tougher gun restrictions.

The New York Senate and House rushed the bill through Monday and Tuesday, and Cuomo signed it into law. Among other measures, the new law limits the capacity of magazines to seven rounds, down from the existing 10, and makes it easier to take guns from those with mental illnesses.

"With regard to the question of New York — we are the state of Connecticut. We are the ones that suffered this tragic loss, and we are the ones that have to deal with it," said House Minority Leader Larry Cafero, R-Norwalk.

"We are responsible and responsive to our constituency, and I don't think any state — regardless of how quickly they act, or what they do — should put any pressure on us to do anything other than … thoughtful, meaningful and effective legislation as quickly as possible," Cafero said.

Said Sharkey: "No, I don't feel any pressure, myself, that other states are doing this. I think ultimately … Connecticut is going to be the place where people ... will be looking for guidance, up in Washington as well as around the country."

The task force will have dozens of members, including the top Democrats and Republicans on each of various committees, as well as some others chosen by the leaders. It will hold at least one public hearing to gather information on Newtown-related proposals that will be deliberated by more than half a dozen other standing committees of the legislature such as appropriations, public safety, and public health.

"The eyes of the nation are on Connecticut," said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn. "Our children's safety is not a partisan issue and I am pleased to join with Democrats and Republicans in crafting a bipartisan plan to reduce violence, improve school security and address access to mental health services."

Said state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield: "I have had the privilege of representing Newtown, Conn., in the state Senate for the past 14 years and the tragic events that occurred there on Dec. 14 require a response from our government and our society at large. I am pleased that this task force is set up to work across party lines to make legislative recommendations based on facts and evidence in the areas of mental illness, school safety and gun control."

Meanwhile, Tuesday brought other developments on the gun issue:

—President Barack Obama was poised to release his agenda Wednesday for preventing gun violence in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., released a statement: "I strongly support the President's historic effort to make the nation safer from gun violence and to keep faith with the innocent victims of Sandy Hook. … The nation has reached a critical point in reducing gun violence. ... I will continue to advocate for legislation to require background checks for ammunition purchases. We must maintain a sense of urgency..."

—Malloy said that he favors many of the items in New York's bill for stricter gun control in the post-Newtown era. "We have talked about limiting magazines to a number less than 30," Malloy said. "They've gone to seven. Sounds good to me." He also said that New York had broadened its assault weapons definition, and "taken a step in the direction" of closing loopholes in gun-permitting and background checks. "Generally, it sounds good to me."

—Malloy ripped into the National Rifle Association over a controversial application for iPhones called "NRA: Practice Range" that helps children learn how to shoot. Those using the app can fire military-style firearms like AK-47s and M-16s.

Malloy reacted to the new app's being released on Sunday near the one-month anniversary of the Newtown massacre: "How dumb can you get?" Malloy asked. "How insulting can you be? How outrageous can your behaviors be? How tone-deaf can you be? You can quote any one of those."

Talking to reporters outside his office at the state Capitol on Tuesday afternoon, Malloy added: "I've been on the app, and you can push a button and hear the sound of a gun going off. It's offensive. I can assure you they didn't call me before they chose the date."

Newly elected U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., also blasted the NRA over the app, issuing a statement saying: "The NRA seems intent on continuing to insult the families of the victims of Sandy Hook. How could they think it was a good idea to use the one-month anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook to release a game that teaches four-year-olds to shoot assault weapons?"

Courant Capitol Bureau Chief Christopher Keating contributed to this story.