Standing without an overcoat in sub-freezing temperatures on the steps of Connecticut’s Gothic-style statehouse, state Senator John McKinney begins to tell a group of gun-control activists about the importance of bipartisan dialogue. It doesn’t go well.
Hundreds chant “Pass a bill!” One man screams “Stand up to the NRA!” McKinney pauses. Thirty-six seconds pass and the crowd quiets, so he starts up again. The heckling returns. “Now! Now! Pass the law! Now!”
Perhaps no lawmaker in the U.S. is more at the vortex of the emotionally charged gun debate than McKinney. A 48-year-old Republican, he represents Newtown, a quiet community where 20 elementary-school children and six adults were killed two months ago in the nation’s second-worst mass shooting. His district also includes gunmaker Sturm Ruger & Co. which is part of an industry that employs more than 7,000 in the state.
McKinney was the only lawmaker from his party to address the Hartford rally last week. Before he spoke, CT Pistol Permit Issues, a blog supporting firearms rights, attacked the lawmaker for “bailing” on his constituents and called for an e-mail campaign against him.
“He’s in a very difficult position,” said Scott L. McLean, an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. “There is a huge consensus that the state government has to do something major.”
The U.S. Congress is grappling with gun-control legislation pushed by President Barack Obama, and Democratic governors in at least 10 states are considering strengthening their laws. In Connecticut, with a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers, passing a firearms bill is expected to attract national notice.
As of Jan. 30, 90 gun-control measures had been introduced in the General Assembly this year, according to the Office of Legislative Research.
Governor Dannel Malloy has appointed an advisory commission that is set to make recommendations in mid-March. Separately, a legislative task force began offering proposals this week.
For McKinney, the father of three children ages 16, 14 and 12, the discussion on guns is rooted in his own experience in Newtown on Dec. 14. He spent 12 hours at a firehouse trying to comfort relatives as they waited to learn the fate of their children.
He listened when Malloy informed the group that “there would be no more reunions,” said Brett Cody, McKinney’s spokesman.
“The parents of these young children who were killed and murdered have asked me to speak on their behalf, and I’m going to continue to do that,” McKinney said in an interview during the Hartford rally. “Newtown changed me.”
The lawmaker, a Yale University graduate and son of former U.S. Representative Stewart B. McKinney, must undertake a delicate balancing act, said Ronald Schurin, an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. McKinney is considering a run for governor in 2014, and that means it’s wise for him to tone down his rhetoric, Schurin said.
“If McKinney wants to get through the primary and do well, he is going to have to be somewhat careful not to alienate the conservative base on gun control too much,” Schurin said.
McKinney, the leader of the Senate Republican caucus, invited colleagues on both side of the aisle to Newtown High School last month, organizing a legislative hearing. The idea was to make it easier for those most affected by the tragedy to talk to senators and delegates considering changes to gun laws.
Lawmakers heard from David Wheeler, who lost his 6-year-old son Benjamin at Sandy Hook Elementary School and offered a simple message. “Military-style assault weapons belong in an armory under lock and key,” he said.
Susan Ehrens described how her 6-year-old daughter was part of a group of first-graders who survived after they “ran past the lifeless bodies of their classmates” and escaped the school. She said the federal assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004, should be reinstated.
On the other side, Nicole Hockley, the mother of 6-year-old Dylan, who was slain, said she would “never propose denying others their right to own a gun” and wants lawmakers to focus instead on access to mental-health care.
McKinney is also hearing from the state’s gun industry, including Southport-based Sturm Ruger, which reported $329 million in revenue in 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“They’ve offered to meet with me,” McKinney said. “They’ve offered to give me a tour and take me to a firing range.” Kevin Reid, Sturm Ruger’s general counsel, didn’t return a phone message.
Five other gun manufacturers are located in Connecticut, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation: Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Co., Colt Defense LLC, Stag Arms, Charter Arms and O.F. Mossberg & Sons Inc. New Britain-based Ammunition Storage Components makes 30-round magazines.
The industry employs about 7,300 in Connecticut and contributed $119 million in tax revenue in 2011, according to the NSSF, which is also based in McKinney’s district.
“It makes no sense to damage a vital Connecticut industry by imposing restrictions that would do nothing to achieve our shared goal of a safer state,” according to a recent letter to Connecticut lawmakers signed by 61 gun-related companies with employees in the state.
McKinney has a history of bucking the wishes of those companies. In 2001, he was one of five Senate Republicans to support an assault-weapons ban that would have made the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle used in Newtown illegal, according to his office. Of that group, he’s the only one still in office.
Since that vote, his rating from the 4 million-member National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun-rights group, has plummeted to D- from A+.
For now, McKinney has taken a firm stand on one gun-control measure: He co-authored legislation to limit the size of magazines to 10 bullets. The killer in Newtown, Adam Lanza, used 30-round clips to spray classrooms.
“There are some specific issues related to some of our gun laws that I look differently at because of Newtown,” McKinney said. “There were first-grade kids who were running out of the building as the killer was changing the magazine in his gun.”
He’s the only Republican whose name is on the bill.