HARTFORD – Gov. Ned Lamont came out swinging early in this election year when the state’s response to crime is expected to be a marquee campaign issue.
“You’re not tough on crime if you’re weak on guns,” a steely-eyed Lamont repeated twice for emphasis at a State Capitol press conference in February, where he unveiled an extensive and highly-promoted $64 million package of what he called “gun safety” proposals.
But in a matter of weeks, after an onslaught of criticism from a surprising coalition of opponents, it was clear that Lamont had picked the wrong fight at the wrong moment.
This time around, in a series of public hearings before the General Assembly the expected gun-rights rhetoric from lobbyists and gun owners was unexpectedly amplified by progressive lawmakers and advocates who agreed the package went too far.
Among the most contentious parts of the legislation was a provision that would require the state’s 170,000 gun-permit holders to show the document to police upon request – even if they are not suspected of a crime.
Lamont also wanted to restrict the carrying of firearms in public, tighten regulations on the ownership of “ghost guns” bearing no serial number, broaden the state’s ban on certain “assault weapons,” and expand so-called gun free zones.
Hundreds of opponents testified against the proposal at a public hearing in March, and the original 52-page bill was stripped down to three by the Judiciary Committee, on which Democrats outnumber Republicans 24-15.
And when the legislature adjourned earlier this month, even that leftover was never put to a vote on its own, effectively killing what was intended to be Lamont’s signature initiative for the session.
“I think what the Governor completely missed the mark on is that most gun violence is committed by people who own guns illegally, not legal permit holders,” said Republican State Rep. Greg Howard, a member of the Judiciary Committee and a veteran police officer in Stonington. “And that’s something that the other side continues to miss.”
Wallingford State Rep. Craig Fishbein, a ranking Republican on the committee, was even more blunt.
“The Governor apparently does not know that some Democrats carry guns, too,” he said of the bipartisan opposition to the bill. “Trafficking in illegal guns should be addressed, not the law-abiding gun owners that take the time to navigate Connecticut’s onerous system just to protect themselves and their families.”
The Democratic co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee say the reasons for the failure of Lamont’s bill are more nuanced than that.
Parts of the bill, especially giving police officers authority to ask anyone to show their gun permit, they said, was seen even by many liberals as too invasive and unfairly weighted against those living in urban areas.
“The surprise was the more progressive people who came out against it because of the potential of profiling and disparate treatment,” said State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, perhaps the most vocal lawmaker on policing issues. “I think when all the parts of the spectrum agree that something is bad it’s kind of poisonous,” for the proposal.
Winfield and his co-chair, State Rep. Steven Stafstrom of Bridgeport, also said that the abbreviated, 12-week “short” session meant there was simply no time to tweak the proposal and negotiate with its opponents to come up with a compromise.
“The time constraints of a short session coupled with Republican opposition to key initiatives that addressed the proliferation of illegal guns on our streets impacted the final bill,” Stafstrom said, noting that the intent of some of Lamont’s proposals was reflected in a separate bill addressing juvenile crime.
The one surviving part of the original proposal was inserted into the overall state budget, funding the state police over the next two years $2.5 million for a “gun tracing task force” to work with neighboring states and federal authorities to stem the flow of illegal guns into and around Connecticut. That budget item did not require a separate vote.
Stafstrom and Winfield say they expect to make another run at a comprehensive gun bill when the next session begins in January.
And with both Republicans and Democrats trying to convince voters that their party is tougher or smarter on crime, it remains to be seen how the issue will color the fall elections, and especially Lamont’s bid for reelection against Bob Stefanowski.
“People want to be safe in their communities and I think Republicans are seen as being more on the side of public safety,” said Howard, the Stonington lawmaker and police officer. “I think that is definitely going to play out in the election.”
But Democrat Winfield, who says the level of crime in Connecticut is being overblown because car thefts and associated crimes have more recently hit predominantly-white suburbs – isn’t so sure.
“I don’t know that it means as much as some people are making it out to be,” as an election issue, he said. “The fact that this year a piece of policy went down is not reflective of all that the Governor can talk about. If the sitting Governor of the state of Connecticut can’t find policies to suggest to people that we have moved forward in a way that is good for the state, you know, you might need to hire some new people.”
Lamont’s office did not respond to a request for comment.