Special to the Courant
Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson sat in his office staring at his iPad on Dec. 14 2012, watching coverage of a school shooting 30 miles away. Like countless others, he was engrossed in the story, following the chilling details for hours.
Jackson, 41, knew he couldn't merely watch the tragedy unfold. He had to learn from it.
"My job is to watch every minute of it because if I see one thing here that is a weakness that can be exploited here, then I can't wait until Monday or Tuesday of next week to do something about it," said Jackson.
Now as the chairman of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's newly-created Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, Jackson faces an even bigger challenge: coming up with recommendations to prevent future gun tragedies.
Teachers, attorneys, counselors, and firefighters are among the members of the commission that will also be reviewing school safety, gun laws, and mental health issues. The 16-member panel will meet for the first time later this month before it begins hearing testimony on what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"The panel and the people who are following are going to have to go down a path that takes them further into this school [tragedy] than they've been before," Jackson said. "It's going to be extremely difficult."
A Democrat, Jackson attended Cornell and Yale Universities before he was hired to work on constituent relations for U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman in 1993. He was site manager for the Commission on Presidential Debates during the 1996 Presidential Debate in Hartford.
In 2005, Jackson was appointed Hamden's Chief Administrative Officer and then he was elected to his first term as mayor four years later. He is now in his second term.
Widely regarded as an up-and-coming Democratic politician, Jackson is considered a likely candidate for statewide office one day. He is "someone who is very well regarded as a thoughtful policy analyst and someone who I think has great potential," said state Senator Martin Looney, D-New Haven.
Jackson said his ability to think clearly through emotional situations is likely one of the reasons that the governor chose him to head the commission.
"I try to be rational and this is a very emotional issue," Jackson said. "I think [Malloy] was looking for someone he worked with in the past." Jackson was a member of the panel that reviewed the state's response to two damaging storms, including tropical storm Irene, in 2011.
The governor "also knows that I have two young sons and so that I would take this personally and I would take this seriously and I won't miss the deadlines that he has proposed," he said.
Jackson said the panel does not need to be comprised of experts in every field. Instead, it needs to analyze the testimony of experts who attend their meetings. After the announcement of the commission two weeks ago, Jackson and Gov. Malloy received requests to be on the panel from people from all around the country, Jackson said.
There are no representatives of the gun industry on the commission that will, among other things, be reviewing the state's gun laws and making recommendations for possible further firearm restrictions to prevent future deadly tragedies. Jackson, however has invited gun owners and advocates to share their opinions at commission hearings.
"If the sportsman's groups or the gun owners think they are going to be shut out the hearings, they're not," Jackson said. "We need to hear from them—we need to hear from everybody."
Although the governor acknowledged that the commission's March 15 deadline was chosen to allow the General Assembly to pass legislation based on the commission's recommendations, some state lawmakers have vowed to enact new gun restrictions even sooner.
The Special Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety, the state legislature's effort to curb firearm violence, hopes to conclude its investigation and vote on resulting legislation by the end of February, said Sen. Looney, who is a member of the task force.
"Everyone should take every opportunity to make whatever changes are necessary for our children to be safer," Jackson said. "I should not expect and I would not ask the legislature to wait until March 15 to take up anything related to Sandy Hook."
Some lawmakers, including Democratic Rep. Michael D'Agostino from Hamden, are looking for the Sandy Hook Commission to pay close attention to mental health issues, which may take longer to examine than gun regulation.
"We've got a number of agencies that provide overlapping services,'' he said. "Those need to be consolidated so we can make sure those services are directed to the people who need them more efficiently—and more importantly—more quickly."
Though the commission will take the governor's opinion into consideration, Jackson said all ideas will be heard and all options are on the table. "We can lock down our facilities in a very significant way," Jackson said. "But the more we do, the more they begin to take on the appearance of a jail."
Schools have been community spaces for the last 100 years, he said, but that may change if the commission sees fit. Parent Teacher Associations often meet in school buildings, and one issue Jackson will look at is whether that practice is safe for the students. Another issue they will study is recess and the security of school playgrounds.