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Weston legislators vote yes on gun bill

weston-gunIt has been called among the “toughest” gun laws in the country, and Connecticut’s legislators largely agreed that creating and passing it was among the toughest things they have ever done.

All three of Weston’s legislators — Sens. John McKinney (R-28th District) and Toni Boucher (R-26th District) and Rep. John Shaban (R-135th District) — voted in favor of the gun violence prevention legislation passed Wednesday, April 3, by the Senate and early morning Thursday, April 4, by the House.

The bill, which Gov. Dannel Malloy signed last Thursday, has three components: gun violence prevention, school security, and mental health provisions.

Gun violence prevention provisions include universal background checks for the sale of firearms, expansion of the state’s assault weapons ban, and bans on the sale or purchase of large-capacity magazines, and the registration of existing ones.

The law also calls for the creation of a council to develop safety standards for new school building projects, and the development of statewide school security and safety plan standards. In addition, schools can be reimbursed for security upgrades.

The mental health provisions focus “on helping individuals and their families overcome obstacles to accessing treatment and support,” according to the bipartisan task force that created the bill.

This legislation was prompted by the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting in Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six educators were killed.

Comments

Mr. Shaban called his vote in favor of the Act Concerning Gun Violence and Children’s Safety “one of the most difficult votes since I became a legislator. … As a father, gun owner and resident of northern Fairfield County, these issues and the tragedy that prompted this discussion weigh on me as they do all citizens of Connecticut,” he said.

He is concerned with some of the more “troublesome gun control measures in the bill,” he noted, but “the bill is not simply a ‘gun bill,’ it addresses school security, mental health reforms and new gun control measures as one package.”

Mr. Shaban said “as a gun owner, lawyer and legislator,” he struggled with his decision.

“After hundreds of hours of public testimony, committee meetings and bipartisan meetings, however, the shape of the bill package rightfully evolved a stronger focus on school security and mental health. At the same time, the gun control portion of the bill moved away from blanket bans and confiscations and properly toward the enforcement of illegal gun trafficking laws and effective background checks.”

He continued, “I believe that the resulting gun restrictions — both the common-sense ones and the problematic ones — are acceptable (and constitutional) when viewed, as they must be, in conjunction with the larger package containing the reforms in school security and mental health treatment.”

Ms. Boucher also acknowledged this was “one of the most polarizing issues” the Senate has ever faced, and said that, indeed, “our district was one of the most polarized on this issue.”

She received calls and emails not by the hundreds but by the thousands, she said. “This issue has touched all of us very personally.”

She was impressed, she said, with the leadership of the task force, the willingness of legislators to sift through so much heartfelt testimony, and the participation of Connecticut’s citizens in the process.

Reactions

Weston First Selectman Gayle Weinstein said she is “incredibly proud” of the town’s legislators for “putting aside party politics” and creating a compromise she believes is strong and effective.

Weston’s congressman in the 4th District, Democrat Jim Himes, also praised the state’s legislators for the bipartisan effort.

“Connecticut lawmakers led the way with passage of strong gun violence prevention measures that will make it harder for the wrong people to get dangerous weapons, and I urge my colleagues in Congress to follow suit sooner rather than later,” Mr. Himes said. The new law “will help keep military-style guns off the streets, ensure that all high-capacity magazines are accounted for, and prevent criminals, the mentally ill, and children from getting their hands on a gun. This is an important moment for a state still grappling with an unspeakable tragedy, and I am encouraged by the fact that nearly every legislator from southwest Connecticut — both Democrats and Republicans — voted for these important reforms. I applaud the governor and Connecticut legislators for putting partisan politics aside and doing what is right to protect our children and families,” Mr. Himes said.

Not everyone was happy with the passage of the bill, however. Scott Wilson, president of the gun rights group the Connecticut Citizen’s Defense League, pledged to fight the legislation using the courts “or any legal avenue available,” he said in a statement released April 4.

“While many in our state felt the need to do something in response to the Newtown tragedy, we believe that the actions that were taken to pass this law were wrong. The new law violates our constitutional rights, along with traditions of our celebrated history of Connecticut,” Mr. Wilson said.

Gun violence prevention

Some of the provisions of the bill are:

• Establishment of a statewide dangerous weapon offender registry under which individuals must register with the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection (DESPP) if they have been convicted of any of more than 40 specific weapons offenses.

• Universal background checks for the sale of all firearms immediately, including pistols, revolvers, rifles, and shotguns, whether sales are private, at a gun show or through a dealer.

• Expansion of the former assault weapons ban to include more than 100 new specific weapons based on physical characteristics.

• Banning of large-capacity magazines — holding more than 10 rounds. Those currently owned must be registered by Jan. 1, 2014, to remain legal. However, a legally owned large-capacity magazine may be loaded with more than 10 bullets in an individual’s home.

School security

The school security provision of the bill establishes the School Safety Infrastructure Council, which will develop safety standards for school building projects. Initial standards must be developed by Jan. 1, 2014.

Other provisions under the school security portion of the law include:

• Towns may be reimbursed under a grant program for upgrades to school security infrastructure.

• Safety plan standards for schools will be developed by DESPP and the Department of Education by Jan. 1, 2014.

• Security and safety plans must be developed at each school.

• Safe school climate committees established by the bullying law must investigate instances of disturbing and threatening behavior reported to them.

• All colleges and universities must submit their security plan to the DESPP and they must create threat assessment teams.

Ms. Boucher noted that one suggestion — arming teachers and other school personnel — was taken off the table.

“Eighty to 90% of all stakeholders opposed this action, as well as law enforcement,” Ms. Boucher said in her testimony on the floor. “The potential for collateral damage is too risky when the safety of children and staff is at stake.”

Mental health

The mental heath portion of the new law tries to address treatment and support issues.

A task force will be created to conduct a comprehensive study of Connecticut’s mental health system, with a special focus on the vulnerable 16- to 25-year-old population.

The law establishes the ACCESS-MH program, modeled after the Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Project and similar programs in 26 other states. This program will provide training, support and professional consultations for pediatricians to help them intervene with children who have mental health conditions.

The law also makes several changes to commercial insurance. Certain mental health and substance abuse services must now be considered “urgent care” requests, and there is a requirement to shorten the review time for these requests from 72 to 24 hours.

Ms. Boucher offered extensive comments on the mental health provisions of the bill.

“These proposals may be heralded as the toughest in the country, but for so many residents they do not get to the heart of the problem nor confront more directly the underlying cause of these horrific acts of violence, mental illness,” she said.

“It’s time to stop being politically correct by avoiding those issues surrounding individuals with serious mental health problems.” The state has what she called during her testimony, “a serious lack of appropriate placement for individuals who need mental health treatment.

“Until government leaders and elected officials have the courage to admit there’s a place for mental health institutions with professionals who can oversee treatment of those select few with severe mental illness problems and should invest in them, this issue will not be resolved in a manner that protects the public. … Our society should be just as passionate about this as they are on gun laws and demand that legislators take action on mental issues that may actually do more than gun regulations.”

Ms. Boucher said there has been another omission in the discussion as well. “Legislators haven’t even broached the subject of violence in the media, including television, movies and extremely violent video games that desensitize and even glamorize violence in the minds of young, impressionable children.”

Hersam Acorn Editor Jeannette Ross also contributed to this story.

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