HARTFORD – Gov. Ned Lamont’s wide-ranging proposal to tighten Connecticut’s gun laws came under fire from an array of speakers at a legislative hearing Monday – led by Republicans opposed to the state’s 170,000 gun-permit holders being required to show the document to police even if they are not suspects in a crime.
State Police Commissioner James Rovella, who presented the package on Lamont’s behalf, was questioned for more than two hours by members of the Judiciary Committee.
The permit issue produced several contentious exchanges with Rovella, as did a proposed ban on carrying firearms in voting locations, state and municipal buildings and public transportation like buses, and a prohibition on openly carrying guns at public events such as protests and rallies.
“Essentially what this is doing is banning lawfully-permitted people carrying firearms from virtually all public places,” Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, told Rovella. “Do you know of any other constitutional right that would be limited in this way?”
“No, sir,” Rovella replied.
Permit holders in Connecticut are authorized to carry a concealed weapon or to “open-carry” a gun in a manner visible to others, such as in a holster.
Police now may not ask someone carrying a gun in either fashion to show their permit unless the officer has “reasonable suspicion” that the person was involved in a crime.
Under Lamont’s proposal, that language would be removed from the law and police could demand to see the permit of anyone openly carrying a gun, and potentially arrest them if they did not comply.
It also would ban the carrying of weapons at public events.
Rovella said that change was prompted by recent high-profile incidents involving gun violence at such events as a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Wisconsin where teenager Kyle Rittenhouse fatally shot two men and wounded another.
“Throughout our nation, we have seen instances of protestors and counter-protestors arming themselves and seeking confrontations, leading to disastrous results for everyone,” Rovella said in his opening remarks.
Pressed further by Dubitsky, Rovella said that the permit change and the proposal banning the carrying of weapons in many public places was based on a need to increase the safety of officers and the public, and because “free speech can be inhibited by those carrying firearms.”
“It can be inhibited by people who are 7-feet-tall and weigh 250 pounds, too,” Dubitsky replied. “Does that mean the police get to stop them? How is this possibly constitutional?”
“I’m interested in the safety of police officers, sir,” answered Rovella. “And the safety of other citizens in and around those folks carrying guns.”
Committee member and retired police officer Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, asked Rovella what the consequences would be if the permit holder refused to hand it over to an officer.
Rovella said he hoped the officer would be trained enough to “talk through it” with the permit holder, but could choose to charge the person with a crime such as interfering with an officer.
“Interfering because I’m legally carrying and somebody comes up and says ‘hey give me your license?” Champagne asked. “How do you get interfering out of that? I think that’s an overreach, personally.”
One committee member who supported the proposal was Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, who said it would solidify Connecticut’s place as a national leader in gun-responsibility laws.
He said the Jan. 6, 2020 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol is an example of why guns should be banned at polling places.
“Intimidation should have no part of our electoral process,” Godfrey said. “Protecting people not only from people who want to disrupt the election process, but for people who want to get on a bus and go to work without being afraid of some gun-toting person to intimidate them – aren’t these things not only in our purview but also our responsibility?”
Under questioning by Rep. Patrick Callahan, R-Danbury, Rovella acknowledged that gun crimes in Connecticut are more likely to be committed by someone who obtained the weapon illegally, as opposed to someone with a permit that allows them to purchase guns and ammunition.
“Criminals don’t care what the law is,” Callahan said. “So we continue to lump laws on and I’m not sure of the effect it will have.”
Ray Bevis, legislative coordinator for the 43,000-member Connecticut Citizens Defense League gun-rights advocacy group, said the proposed change in the permit law would not only be onerous for the holder, but may discriminate against minorities who have recently become perhaps the fastest-growing population of those seeking permits.
“I believe a police response to a white man with a firearm will be totally different than a minority,” he said. “It really gives law enforcement the green light to profile, and not just gun owners but to basically racially profile.”
Bevis added that the act of a police officer taking someone’s permit for inspection is akin to being detained.
“Any time a police officer takes your identification I feel you’re not free to leave,” he said. “It’s a form of detention in my eyes.”
More than 200 people had signed up to testify at the hearing, which also included proposals to create a statewide firearms “crimes and tracing” task force within the state police that would combat weapons trafficking and be staffed with state and municipal officers; tighten regulations on guns manufactured or assembled by a private person that do not bear a factory serial number; and add more high-powered rifles to an existing list of what are commonly described as assault weapons.
The hearing’s agenda also included several proposals related to efforts to stem what authorities say is a pandemic-driven spike in crimes committed by juveniles.