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Why Won't New Weapons-Offender Registry Be Open To Public?

Jon Lender

Government Watch

3:30 PM EDT, April 6, 2013

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Connecticut legislators say a key provision that sets their tough new gun-control law apart from other states' measures is its first-in-the-nation "dangerous weapon offender registry" — which will list the names and addresses of those convicted of weapons-related offenses for five years after their release from prison.

But while the weapons-offender registry sounds similar to online sex-offender registries around the country that are open to the public, there's a big difference: This one would be off-limits to regular citizens. It is intended only for the eyes of law-enforcement personnel.

So here's a question: If state officials say Jack and Jill Citizen should have the ability to find out online if a sex offender lives in their subdivision, why shouldn't they be able to find out if one of their neighbors went to jail for shooting somebody?

It's a question some are asking now that details are emerging about the little-discussed weapons-offender registry, which showed up in the bipartisan gun bill after being negotiated in secret by Democratic and Republican legislative leaders and then was approved Wednesday by the General Assembly and signed Thursday by the governor.

"It just doesn't make any sense," said J. Herbert Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. "It's not good public policy."

Smith said that the information on the registry would, pretty much, come from documents that are available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. Those include records of the offenders' arrests by police, their convictions in court, sentences meted out by judges, and a Department of Correction official website that says where they are incarcerated and when they're scheduled to get out.

Smith questioned why legislators would deny public access to the compilation of that information into what could be a useful list. "You don't want to make that stuff secret," he said.

Why did the lawmakers do it?

The registry "was requested by police as a tool for them," said state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven.

It was Looney who proposed that it be included in the big gun bill that leaders negotiated in the three months since the Dec. 14 Newtown school massacre. Police chiefs from cities — his home city, in particular — had requested the registry in recent years as a way of keeping tabs on where violent offenders are living, he said.

Some weapons offenders serve their full sentences because they behave too badly in prison to earn credits toward early release — and, once they're back in the community, they're not under the supervision of a parole or probation officer, Looney said. In the absence of such supervision, Looney said, making them provide their names and addresses for the registry will not only let police know where they are, but also perhaps exert some influence over them.

Starting Jan. 1, the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection will be required to maintain a list of every person convicted of a deadly-weapon offense. Offenders would have to register with the department within two weeks of their release into the community from prison or court adjudication. They would have to provide their name, address, criminal history, email and fingerprints, and they would have notify DESPP promptly of any address changes.

Also, once annually for five years, they would have to check in with their local police to verify their status — or, if there's no local department, they would have to check in with the state police troop that covers their hometown.

Looney said police officials have told him that this system might give them "some continuing leverage" over the offenders during the five years they have to comply with the registry's rules. It might have a "cautionary effect," Looney said the police have told him.

Looney said making the registry public could be considered by lawmakers as time goes on — but, he said, one reason the new law was written so the information is only available to police is that making public the offenders' addresses might result in their being attacked.

"They might be targeted" by other criminals over grudges that may have developed in previous activities in gangs or the drug trade, for example, Looney said. Often, people released from prison "have enemies waiting for them when they come out" — people "with scores to settle," he said.

The law requires listing in the registry people convicted of a crime involving a "deadly weapon," which is defined as "any weapon, whether loaded or unloaded, from which a shot may be discharged, or a switchblade knife, gravity knife, bill, blackjack, bludgeon, or metal knuckles."

Here are a few of the crimes that will land a person on the registry if he or she is convicted of them:

— Use of a firearm in manslaughter, assault, sexual assault, kidnapping or burglary.

— Committing a felony that involves threatening the use of a firearm.

— Possession of a sawed-off shotgun or silencer.

— Theft of a firearm.

— Illegal possession of a weapon on school grounds.

— Criminal possession of a handgun.

— Selling or otherwise transferring a handgun to an ineligible person.

— Failure to document a handgun transfer with DESPP.

— Making a false statement in connection with purchase, sale, delivery or other transfer of a handgun.

— Carrying a handgun without a permit.

— Removing, defacing or obliterating the name of any maker, or model, or any maker's number, or other mark of identification from any firearm.

Looney had submitted a bill in 2011 in hopes of establishing the statewide registry, but after a public hearing in which most of the testimony was against it, it failed to advance.

One of the criticisms at the time came from James M. Thomas, the then-commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety, now known as DESPP.

"A requirement to create and maintain a gun offender registry would have significant fiscal impact to … the state," Thomas wrote at the time. "The public safety value of such a registry is questionable as arrest information for persons convicted of firearms offenses can easily be found utilizing the traditional record checks through National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and the State Police Bureau of Identification (SBPI). In addition, many of these convicted offenders are under the supervision of either parole or probation and, as a consequence, are required to register their addresses etc. As a rule, parole and probation coordinate with local law enforcement as well."

Looney said the Malloy administration didn't feel that way about it this time around.

Under the "emergency-certification" process used to adopt the post-Newtown gun bill, there wasn't any public hearing with an agenda that specifically listed the registry proposal, as in 2011.

Some cities around the country, including New York and Chicago, have such registries, and access to them is generally restricted to law enforcement agencies.

Smith, the head of the Freedom of Information council, said he was impressed by the breadth of the gun-control bill produced in such a short time by lawmakers, but he said when legislation gets thrown together during closed-door negotiations, decisions can be made hastily. "I can see some back-and-forth and trade-offs, and somebody says 'well, we've got to keep this list secret.'"

The gun law also expands the state's existing 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 Newtown killings. It also requires universal background checks for purchasers of all firearms, even private sales between individuals. Also, the sale and purchase of large-capacity ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds are prohibited.

People who owned those large-capacity magazines before the law took effect can keep them under new restrictions, including one that they must register them with the state by Jan. 1, 2014. Similarly, those who already owned semiautomatic rifles now defined as assault weapons can keep them under new registration procedures.

Effective Oct. 1, all purchases of ammunition will require an eligibility certificate. To obtain certification to buy ammunition, purchasers also must pass a federal criminal background check. Such eligibility certificates will be required as of April 2014 for purchases of shotguns and rifles that do not fall under the assault-weapons ban. Penalties for illegal gun trafficking also will be expanded.

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.