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Connecticut Lawmakers Lost Nerve on Ban When Gun Lobby Mobilized

When 300 opponents showed up at a Connecticut legislative hearing on a ban on high-capacity gun magazines, Representative Mae Flexer said she got the message.

So did her fellow lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee. After the packed March 23, 2011, meeting, the committee never brought the bill up for a vote. One week ago, a gunman used such magazines to feed bullets into the semiautomatic rifle that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

“I don’t know how any of us will be able to sleep,” said Flexer, a 32-year-old Democrat on the legislature’s judiciary committee, which considered the measure. “I’ve been tearing myself apart over the last couple days about that bill.”

What unfolded last year shows how the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights supporters use their muscle. Its sudden and swift campaign swayed lawmakers in a place whose laws are fifth-strictest among states, according to the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which describes itself as the country’s largest gun-control lobby.

Most lawmakers on the joint House-Senate judiciary panel initially supported the proposal, backing down after thousands of gun-rights supporters, including NRA members, sent letters, and opponents swarmed the hearing, said Senator Eric Coleman and Representative Gerald Fox, the Democratic co-chairmen.

‘Political Aspirations’

Both Coleman and Fox declined to say which committee members switched votes after the hearing. Some lawmakers saw strong turnout from the opposition as a political threat, Coleman said.

“There was concern that people would be motivated to organize and campaign against them,” Coleman said. “Some of them concluded that it wouldn’t have been necessary to take action on that bill and fight unnecessary opposition to their political aspirations.”

The shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary, Adam Lanza, 20, used as his main weapon a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle with magazines containing 30 bullets, said Connecticut State Police Lieutenant Paul Vance at a Dec. 16 news conference.

It was the latest mass murder in the U.S. in which the gunman’s arsenal included a high-capacity magazine. Connecticut’s bill was written in response to an attack last year in Tuscon, Arizona, that killed six and injured U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Jared Lee Loughner was sentenced to life in prison for the shootings in which he used a 33-round magazine in a Glock 19.

The Connecticut ban would have made it a felony to possess magazines holding more than 10 bullets and required owners to surrender them to law enforcement or remove them from the state. Lawmakers say they will reconsider it next year.

Arriving Unready

At least 52 people testified against the bill at the hearing. Just two spoke in support, including Ron Pinciaro, director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence. Pinciaro said he miscalculated the size of the opposition and hadn’t seen a reason to recruit more supporters to testify. Lawmakers never held a vote on the legislation, citing a lack of support.

“I got a little bit blindsided,” Pinciaro said. “I have regrets. A lot of people should have regrets about that time.”

Twenty-eight of the 45 members on the committee didn’t return phone calls and messages seeking comment, including 15 of the 18 lawmakers endorsed by the NRA, the Fairfax, Virginia membership group that describes itself as the nation’s foremost defender of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Some Democrats who at first supported the measure changed their minds after hearing from opponents, said Senator Edward Meyer, the Democrat assistant majority leader and member of the judiciary panel. Meyer said he didn’t know who changed position, and that the legislation wasn’t a priority for the party, which controls both chambers.

“The anti-gun supporters underestimated the opposition,” Meyer said. “It was very effective.”

Another Chance

Informal vote counts showed there wasn’t enough support to get the measure approved by the committee, Coleman said.

Republican Representative Arthur O’Neill said he was “dubious” about the bill last year and now believes it “certainly deserves another hearing.”

“If we had passed that piece of legislation and we hadn’t had a 30-round magazine, then exactly what happened in Newtown could not have happened,” O’Neill said. “It might have led to a lower death toll.”

Representative DebraLee Hovey, a Republican whose district includes part of Newtown, said she didn’t remember the bill. She said she may support it now.

“I don’t know why anyone would need massive quantities of ammunition with the immediacy except for people who are in the military and public safety,” said Hovey, who was endorsed by the NRA. It gave her an A- grade.

Stuffed Mailboxes

Opponents sent thousands of letters and e-mails to lawmakers, said Robert Crook, head of the Hartford-based Coalition of Connecticut Sportsman, which opposed the bill. Dozens more opponents submitted written testimony, including chief executives of gunmakers: James Debney of Springfield, Massachusetts-based Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., and Michael Fifer of Sturm, Ruger & Co., which is in Southport, Connecticut.

Debney, Fifer and others told lawmakers, who faced a $3.2 billion deficit and a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, that the bill would cost jobs.

“While the Connecticut state budget has the noose around our necks, you waste time on laws that would affect law-abiding citizens, not the criminals,” Gina Veser, of Somers, told lawmakers at the hearing.

Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, said at a Dec. 17 news conference that he didn’t know about the bill last year. Malloy’s appointed public safety commissioner, Reuben Bradford, now supports the ban, said Steven Spellman, Bradford’s chief of staff.

Trifling Matter

Spellman attended the hearing last year to testify on a separate issue. The agency didn’t take a position on the proposed ban.

“It didn’t rise to the level where we allocated resources to file testimony,” Spellman said.

Opposition was organized by the NRA and pro-gun activists, including the sportsmen coalition and the Groton-based Connecticut Citizen’s Defense League. None made extraordinary efforts to turn out opponents, said Crook and Leonard Benedetto, vice-president of the defense league.

Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, didn’t return telephone calls or e-mails seeking comment about the group’s role turning out opponents.

Crook said he sent an e-mail to more than 1,800 members saying the proposal could “ban your magazines and turn your guns into paper weights.”

Relenting View

Crook said he will fight the measure again.

“This wasn’t just a technical bill,” Crook said in an interview. “It was taking something away from someone, and when you do that, we get very concerned.”

One of those gun owners was Danny Bryant, a 70-year-old retiree in Cromwell, who opposed the bill because “once they start taking something away, they keep on taking.”

“Things have changed” after the shootings, Bryant said. “After what I saw happened, I don’t think those types of guns and magazines should be allowed anymore.”

Senator Beth Bye, a Democratic member of the judiciary panel, said she wants to vote on the measure next year.

“This could have made a difference,” Bye said. “There were certainly some brave teachers there that if he had to keep reloading, a little break might have been enough to do something and led to fewer deaths.”

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