Civil Liberties

Connecticut's Gun Control: A Rush To Pass Laws That Couldn't Have Prevented Tragedy


Adam Lanza
Public Domain

There's an old saying about locking the barn door after the horse has escaped, but what Connecticut legislators have cooked up, gun control-wise, is more like watching your horse recede into the distance and then nailing all your neighbors' windows and doors shut. The grab bag (PDF) of background checks, gun, ammunition and magazine restrictions, limitations on eligibility to own firearms and a new registry of "weapon offenders" inconveniences people who had nothing to do with the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, and certainly would have had no impact on Adam Lanza's ability to commit that crime. But don't think anybody will get to point that out in a public hearing; the legislation is being sent directly to a vote through an emergency procedure that allows for no stops on the way.

After months of post-massacre hand-wringing, Connecticut's Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety coughed up measures including the following (PDF):

  • A "dangerous weapon offender" registry
     Anybody convicted of any of more than 40 enumerated weapons offenses (mostly gun offenses) or another felonyinvolving the use or threatened use of a deadly weapon will have to register with the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. The list will be available only to law enforcement, and registrants will remain on it for five years, not life, but they must update their addresses with state authorities, just like sex offenders.
  • Universal backround checks
    "Immediately upon passage, no pistol, revolver, rifle or shotgun can be sold to any Connecticut resident until the buyer undergoes and passes a national criminal background check—whether such sale is private, at a gun show, or through a dealer"
  • Expanded "assault weapons" ban
    Bans more than 100 more specific weapons in addition to those already illegal in the state, as wel as any weapon that has just one of an expanded list of "military-style features." Currently owned weapons are grandfathered, though under tight restrictions.
  • Ban on "large capacity magazines"
    New state limit of ten rounds. Grandfathers existing magazines subject to registration, though such magazines can never be loaded with more than ten rounds outside the owner's home or a shooting range. Acquiring a new large capacity magazine after the ban, or failing to register an existing one, becomes a class D felony.
  • Eligibility certificates to purchase rifles, shotguns or ammunition
    Certificate applicants must "undergo a firearms safety training course, be fingerprinted, and undergo a national criminal background and involuntary commitment /voluntary admission check."
  • Expanded firearms storage requirements
    Owners must securely store firearms if "any resident of the premises where the firearm is stored is ineligible to possess a firearm" or "poses a risk of imminent personal injury to himself or herself or to other individuals."
  • Restrictions on firearms possession by those with mentall illness
    Expands restrictions on those who have been involuntarily committed from 12 to 60 months and imposes a six-month ban on firearms possession on those who voluntarily admit themselves to a psychiatric facility.
  • Ban on possession and sale of "armor piercing ammunition"

The press officer for the Connecticut House Republicans confirmed that the bipartisan bill formalizing these proposals will go directly to a vote tomorrow (Wednesday, April 3) under emergency certification, which precludes referrals to committees and public hearings. That means nobody gets to raise any objections, such as pointing out that the guns Adam Lanza used were registered to his mother. She qualified to own firearms under the old rules and there's no reason to believe the new restrictions would have barred her ownership of guns in any way. She still would have passed the checks and earned her certificates. At 20, Lanza would be too young to purchase rifles under the new law, but, again, he used his mother's guns. Some reports speculate that Adam Lanza feared that his mother might have him committed, or move him out of state to attend a special school, but nothing of the sort had yet happened, so he wouldn't have fallen under the law's mental health restrictions.

Perhaps some of the magazines he used would have fallen under the new law, but even if these proposals had moved forward a year ago, those magazines would have been grandfathered. So would the weapons used, even if they didn't make the cut under the new law.

Gun control advocates in Connecticut have reportedly raised a few objections to the grandfather clauses in the new legislation, but they exist for a reason: To save lawmakers the humility of suffering massive non-compliance. As it is, they'll quietly ignore the fact that few gun owners are likely to register their now-restricted weapons and magazines (and how to register a magazine that has no serial number should be an interesting challlenge). When New Jersey banned "assault weapons" in 1991, defiance was the overwhelming response. Only 947 people registered their rifles as sporting guns for target shooting, 888 rendered them inoperable, and four surrendered them to the police. That's out of an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 firearms affected by the law. Grandfathering in existing equipment in Connecticut is a face-saving measure to avoid a similar outcome.

As for the other measures… Restrictions on people who voluntarily seek care in a psychiatric facility? Really? The only thing ameliorating the monstrous likelihood of deterring troubled people from seeking care through threats of entering them in a database and limiting their rights, is the continuing ability of Connecticut residents to seek treatment in another state, at facilities immune to that law.

And a ban on "armor piercing ammunition?" Define that, please. All ammunition penetrates armor, depending on the toughness of the armor.

Added: If there is any more feel-good but useless requirement than "universal background checks," I can't imagine what it is. It's a requirement that will be obeyed only by the most rigidly law-abiding. Not just criminals, but those with a disinterest in being tracked by the government will continue to buy and sell guns with each other without going through legal procedures. A similar law is widely ignored in California, according to a memo from the National Institute of Justice.

You'll notice that violations of the new Connecticut gun laws all seem to be felonies. Making something a felony is a modern legislator's way of puffing out his or her chest and saying, "I'm really serious." But, while there's no denying that being convicted of a felony carries serious inconveniences in penalties and legal restrictions, we're long past the point where making an act a felony stigmatizes it in any way. Harvey Silverglate famously estimated that Americans commit Three Felonies a Day in the course of going about their normal business. Connecticut residents, at least gun owners, may have to assume they've upped their daily felony allotment to four and just extend care to not be caught to more areas of life.

One of the unwritten rules of politics is that any legislation labeled "bipartisan" is sure to be especially poorly thought out and intrusive. That's also true of legislation that's labeled "emergency" and pushed through in a way that bypasses normal procedures, including public hearings. Connecticut's gun control package satisfies both criteria. It's a true dog's breakfast that could satisfy only those who value restrictions on freedom for their own sake, or else admire train-wrecky lawmaking as an execise in performance art.