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Weston firearms ordinance proposal gets another revision

The Board of Selectmen has revised again a proposal to change Weston’s firearms ordinance. The latest incarnation of the draft proposal eliminates previous ideas to increase some permitting requirements and specific safe storage and ammunition requirements, and it changes definitions to more clearly reflect the language used in state statutes.

The Board of Selectmen began revising the town’s gun ordinance immediately after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in December, in which 20 children and six adults were killed. At that time, the selectmen expressed frustration at the historically slow pace of state and federal legislators when it came to tackling gun safety.

But in proposing changes at the local level as to how weapons — particularly assault weapons — are purchased, registered, and stored, the town leaders attracted national attention from such groups as the National Rifle Association.

The selectmen originally considered a draft ordinance that included provisions that would:

• Ban assault weapons, automatic weapons, and high-capacity magazines which are “not appropriate for our town for sporting purposes.”

• Require safe and secure storage of weapons when they are not being used.

• Require registration of all firearms in town.

Since that time, Selectman Dennis Tracey, who has been tasked with drafting the ordinance changes, has revised it many times based on input from the public, the other selectmen and the town attorney.

The latest draft version, posted after last Thursday’s Board of Selectmen meeting, includes several changes to the original proposal. Some changes include:

Definitions

The terms “firearm,” “machine gun,” and “assault weapon” are defined as having “the same meaning as that provided under state law.”

This is to acknowledge that state legislators are in the process of revising state gun regulations, and “the town needed to be consistent with state law,” First Selectman Gayle Weinstein said.

The selectmen agreed the language in the ordinance, which had last been revised in 1990, also had to be revised because some of the weapons definitions were simply outdated and other language was confusing or vague.

Prohibition

Rather than attempting to ban ownership or possession of certain kinds of weapons — a proposition that raised legal and constitutional rights questions — the selectmen have focused instead on prohibiting the discharge of certain weapons.

They opted to stick with the current prohibition of discharging machine guns or assault weapons anywhere in town.

In addition, discharge of other firearms would be prohibited except for the following reasons: residential target practice, but a permit must be obtained from the chief of police; law enforcement officers or military personnel who are acting in the performance of their duties as such; and those defending themselves or a third party from “what he or she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of physical force.”

Permitting

Rather than having to apply for a local permit to own or possess a firearm, under the current proposal, Westonites instead would have to apply for a permit with the chief of police for residential target practice only.

The chief of police would issue that permit only if the resident has passed an approved gun safety course or has a valid pistol permit. Adequate provisions must also be made to keep projectiles within a resident’s property.

Storage

The selectmen agreed trying to require specific types of safe storage of firearms and ammunition left the town open to legal challenges.

Selectman David Muller said he feels strongly enough about the issue that he suggested including a recommendation to safely and appropriately store weapons within the home as part of the preamble to the ordinance.

State law charges boards of selectmen with the responsibility “to promote peace, safety, good government and welfare of the municipality and its inhabitants.” That compels the board to strongly suggest safe storage of weapons, even if it doesn’t have the same “force as an ordinance or law,” Mr. Muller said.

The proposed preamble states in part:

“The Board of Selectmen believes that the misuse of firearms by individuals who are not properly trained and qualified to use them can endanger public health and safety, and that safe storage practices are essential to public welfare. The board recommends securing firearms and ammunition in a manner that will prevent unauthorized access when not in use, preferably in a locked gun safe or similar enclosure.”

Penalties

The selectmen have proposed raising the penalty for violating any provision of the firearms ordinance from $90 to $250.

Discussion

Mr. Muller said while he is pleased the board has taken on this difficult task, he still wishes they could do more.

“The truth is, we’re not going to have a gun problem in Weston until we have a gun problem,” Mr. Muller said. Not discussing, considering, deliberating, and including the public in the process “would be negligent on our part,” he added.

Mr. Tracey said, “I think we all realize we can’t eliminate gun violence through laws. A more holistic approach has to be taken.” However, he said, “it’s just as important to have a statement of what the community believes.”

Before any final vote is taken, the Police Commission will have the opportunity to review the changes at its March 5 meeting, and residents will have a chance to weigh in at a public hearing set for Thursday, March 21, at 7 p.m.

A few already spoke up at the Board of Selectmen’s Feb. 7 meeting.

Don Saltzman said he appreciates the board’s more “guarded approach” to revising the ordinance.

Another man said the town must be cognizant of the fact that only the state or federal government — not municipalities — can ban “ownership or possession of weapons,” and so he was glad that language was removed from the ordinance proposals.

Mark Harper, who was one of the people who drafted the 1990 gun ordinance, said he agrees with the newly revised ordinance. “I totally support the changes you’ve made … you’re doing it right,” he said.

The current draft ordinance is available on the town website, westonct.gov.

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