Comments from several members of the public at last Thursday’s Board of Selectmen’s meeting indicated there is a general desire to tighten up the town’s existing weapons ordinance, as long as regulations do not infringe upon people’s constitutional rights.
At the Jan. 3 meeting, the selectmen continued to tweak proposed revisions to Weston’s gun ordinance, which was created in 1990.
Selectman Dennis Tracey, an attorney, has taken the lead in researching and drafting a new ordinance in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown last month. He noted the board had passed a resolution at its last meeting vowing to take all appropriate steps it can to improve security in town and to take a leadership role in doing so.
Mr. Tracey said he has since been working closely with Weston police Chief John Troxell, Sgt. Mike Ferullo, and Police Commission Chairman Rick Phillips to try to craft legislation that’s “appropriate for our community, providing greater security in Weston, as well as something that hopefully can be a model for other communities,” and even a model for state and federal regulations.
Mr. Tracey said he and the other selectmen, David Muller and First Selectman Gayle Weinstein, believe they must act at the local level because state and federal laws are inadequate.
In updating the town’s current gun ordinance, Mr. Tracey said he is focusing on three elements he describes as “quite simple.” He said the proposed ordinance:
• Bans assault weapons, automatic weapons, and high-capacity magazines which are “not appropriate for our town for sporting purposes.”
• Requires safe and secure storage of weapons when they are not being used.
• Requires registration of all firearms in town.
Mr. Muller asked about the “priority of law” and whether the town is allowed to have regulations that are more restrictive than state or federal regulations.
Mr. Tracey said yes. Local laws cannot be inconsistent with state or federal laws, but they may go further than them, “as long as they don’t violate an individual’s constitutional rights,” Mr. Tracey said. The goal for the proposed ordinance is to have “reasonable restrictions tailored to Weston, that are not inconsistent with any law, and that respect [a person’s] constitutional rights to own and bear arms,” he added.
The draft of the ordinance, which, the selectmen continue to emphasize, is still very much a work in progress, contains definitions of various types of weapons for the purpose of the ordinance, including firearms, automatic weapons, rifles, shotguns, pistols, revolvers and handguns, assault weapons, and other weapons.
The ordinance states certain prohibitions, including discharging any “assault weapons, automatic weapons, or any detachable magazine capable of storing more than 10 rounds of ammunition in the town of Weston.”
It also prohibits owning or possessing any weapon in Weston unless:
• One obtains a permit for ownership from the chief of police, and registers each firearm with the police.
• One is a peace officer, member of the armed forces, or an authorized messenger or bank guard performing one’s duties as such.
Discharging any firearm in Weston would be limited to:
• A landowner or permitted guest on his/her own property, as long as he/she has taken proper precautions to ensure any “projectile” stays within the property.
• The Weston Gun Club.
• Controlled deer hunting approved by the first selectman.
• A person protecting himself or herself from “lethal force.”
The draft ordinance also requires all firearms to be kept in a securely locked steel box unless one is carrying it or close enough to be able to readily retrieve it.
Under the proposal, violations of the provisions of the gun ordinance would be subject to a $500 fine each.
Mark Harper, the town’s animal control officer and one of the authors of the 1990 gun ordinance, said there are parts of the proposed ordinance revision of which he is strongly in favor. He is most supportive of the addition of the safe storage requirement and the increase in penalties for violating any provisions.
However, Mr. Harper said, he thinks many of the proposals go too far and would be challenged in the courts. He thinks “any legal gun owner” will object to the way the regulation about possession is written, he said, adding, “I have a constitutional right to possess any guns I want.”
Mr. Harper said he is also concerned about a requirement to register all firearms with the police, fearing that list might end up being distributed publicly, “like is happening in New York.”
Don Saltzman shared Mr. Harper’s concern, saying even if the registration list was intended for police use only, the town should look into whether a member of the public would be able to obtain it through Freedom of Information laws.
Mr. Saltzman said he is also concerned about the police knowing who has guns in their homes and possibly treating differently any situation that might arise at one of those properties — there might be cases of either discrimination or an increased danger to a responding officer, he said.
Jess DiPasquale, a member of the Police Commission, agreed. He said he has heard from people who are concerned about discrimination if police enter a home knowing a gun is present. He said he is not sure it’s helpful for police to know that, since they should be using the same type of protocols for safety in either case.
“It’s a very positive thing you’re doing, but it has to be done in a way that doesn’t create an uprising,” Mr. DiPasquale said. He urged the board to “take a bit of time” in crafting the ordinance.
Mr. Saltzman also asked about how enforceable the ordinance would be.
Mr. Muller said it is not the selectmen’s intention to have police go door to door to check for compliance. Like drug laws, for example, he said, laws are put into place and then people are expected to abide by them.
Ms. Weinstein said it is a concern, however, because “technically, we’re not allowed to create an ordinance that is not enforceable.” But, she added, she believes they can create one that is.
She noted that discussion of the proposed ordinance is on the Police Commission agenda for Thursday, Jan. 10.
The town’s proposed ordinance is attracting national attention. National Public Radio (NPR) did a piece on the selectmen’s discussion, and several organizations across the country have picked up on a statement issued by the Connecticut Citizens Defense League (CCDL).
The league is objecting to the proposal to require a permit from the police chief for all weapons. “This proposal would give the Chief of Police sole discretion to deny any person a ‘Permit for Ownership’ without cause,” the CCDL release states.
The draft ordinance as of last week states in part that a permit to own a firearm will not be issued “unless the applicant proves to the satisfaction of the chief of police … that the applicant has passed the Connecticut Conservation Education firearms safety course or is the holder of a valid pistol permit issued by the state Department of Public Safety.”
But the CCDL believes Weston’s proposals go too far, calling it essentially a “ban” on owning weapons.
CCDL President Scott Wilson said in the league’s release, “The town of Weston is claiming to have powers that far exceed the constitution’s of both the state of Connecticut, and the U.S. Constitution. Law abiding citizens that choose to exercise their rights are now being disenfranchised from owning firearms and other shooting devices. This is but another knee jerk and opportunistic excuse for law makers to punish law abiding citizens, and impose more gun control. An ordinance of this type, that becomes municipal code, will more than likely be met by lawsuits. Hopefully the town of Weston will drop this proposal altogether and avoid unnecessary litigation.”
The selectmen have all acknowledged there are many changes and revisions still to come, many specifics to be hammered out, and everything will need to go through the town attorney — who has already been asked to consult with a constitutional law expert. But “dropping the proposal altogether” as the CCDL suggests is extremely unlikely.
“We need to do what we need to do to protect Weston residents,” First Selectman Gayle Weinstein said. “I feel very strongly about having the conversation. If we don’t stand up and do something, who will?”
Gunflower graphic by Bryan Haeffele, all rights reserved.