The State House passed a bill instituting more restrictions around gun purchasing, ownership and storage over the protests of Republicans, who insisted the provisions would do nothing to stem gun violence in cities like Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven.
The bill, which passed by a 96-51 vote mainly along party lines, bans open carrying of weapons in public, tightens bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, places restrictions on body armor purchases and requires all “ghost guns” — weapons without a serial number that can be assembled in a person’s home — to be registered with the state.
State Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, said the bill was the most comprehensive gun law the legislature had passed since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
But State Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, argued the bill would only affect people who were legal gun owners. He argued that most crimes were being committed with handguns, not the high-capacity weapons that the bill bans, and that most of the guns being used were illegal.
“The majority of this legislation goes after the law-abiding — that is not where we should be,” Fishbein said. “Criminals do not obey the law.”
State Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, agreed.
“Firearms don’t fire themselves,” he said. “For God’s sake, the problem is people.”
Of the nearly 5,000 people who testified in a public hearing on the bill in March, over 4,600 opposed the bill, and about 300 were in support. Among the supporters were the mayors of Hartford and Bridgeport.
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said in testimony that the number of “ghost guns” that Hartford police collected rose from 29 in 2021 to 58 in 2022, and that the police department also collected 113 high-capacity magazines last year. Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim said of the 216 guns Bridgeport police collected last year, over half were high-capacity magazines and about one in 10 were “ghost guns.”
The proposed bill also raises bail, requires the revoking of parole for people with “serious firearm offenses,” and establishes a judicial docket specifically for firearm-related offenses in Fairfield, New Haven and Waterbury.
“While I do not support broad sweeping efforts to increase incarceration, especially as it dramatically impacts communities of color like Bridgeport, I do believe measures must be tightened to address repeat violent offenders. In 2021 and 2022, thirty-six percent of individuals arrested for fatal and nonfatal shootings had prior violent and firearm felony convictions,” Ganim wrote.
The ban on open carry provoked a long debate in the House, with members asking how that ban would be enforceable. Several members were against the idea that off-duty police officers would also be subject to the ban, and others asked whether people would be allowed to bring guns onto properties owned by their spouses or close family members.
State Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, R-Bristol, said she felt that, as a woman, losing the ability to open carry a weapon took away her ability to defend herself.
“I’m a woman and I’m 4 (foot) 10 and a half — a little over 5 [feet] if I wear heels,” she said. “Having a firearm is my only shot if somebody’s coming at me … and that’s how I keep myself safe. That’s how I keep my household safe, and it’s how I keep my son safe.”
The bill does not make gun owners responsible if someone gets a “fleeting glimpse” of the weapon, and it allows a gun to be temporarily displayed in self-defense or in “lawful” activity.
Fishbein spoke in favor of a bipartisan amendment to the bill that would also limit the penalty for open carry to a misdemeanor with the option for suspension of prosecution, so that no one would receive a jail sentence for openly carrying a firearm.
“What this language and the underlying bill attempts to do is to stop someone from parading down a street, openly carrying a firearm in such a manner so as to cause concern, which we’ve seen in certain instances throughout the state,” Fishbein said.
Other Republicans said they had a problem with the part of the bill requiring all gun owners to store their guns in lock boxes when not in use, arguing that having the gun stored would make it difficult to access readily when it might be needed for self-defense.
But State Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, shared a story of her 18-year-old nephew who went to visit her brother after experiencing two traumatic events in the same week. Her brother, she said, had not locked his gun away, and her nephew, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, used the gun to commit suicide.
“We have people who kill themselves because they got a bad medical diagnosis, or their wife said they would divorce them or whatever, and they had a temporary depression period, and they kill themselves. This is half the gun deaths in Connecticut,” Mushinsky said. “We will save lives. We will save the lives of people who are temporarily depressed and give them another chance to live.”
State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, one of the seven Republicans who voted in favor of the bill, said the legislation seemed to focus on two distinct issues: Preventing mass shootings and dealing with the gun violence happening in the state’s largest cities.
Cheeseman noted that as of Feb. 23, there were 37 deaths with firearms across the state — 20 by suicide and 17 the victims of murder with handguns. She also brought up the death of Se’Cret Pierce, a 12-year-old who was shot and killed in Hartford in late April.
“I want this chamber, as we move forward, to devote the same attention to Se’Cret Pierce, her brothers and her sisters that we devote to the families and children who lived in Sandy Hook,” she said.
Cheeseman also spoke about her husband, a competitive marksman who, she said, took the storage of his guns seriously as to not make them available to their two sons.
“Good law-abiding gun owners do that. They don’t want to put anything at risk, so let’s not target them. Let’s target the people who 1. Are at risk of harming themselves or others, and make sure they don’t have that opportunity. And 2. Help our police, our law enforcement, our mayors who want no more Se’Cret Pierces, who don’t want mothers and grandmothers mourning sons and brothers and daughters and grandchildren. It shouldn’t happen in this state,” she said.
Stafstrom said he believed the bill would ultimately improve public safety and that its stipulations were not too restrictive for lawful gun owners.
“To require someone to submit a piece of paper to register a gun, I don’t see as overly onerous. Particularly if that results in keeping a gun out of a hand of someone who shouldn’t have it,” Stafstrom said.
Ganim warned in his testimony from March that this bill would only represent one piece of a bigger effort to combat gun violence, one that needed to include community violence intervention, job training, mental and behavioral health services and activities for youth.
The State Senate will still need to approve the bill before sending it to Gov. Ned Lamont.