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June 22, 2023

One year later: CT advocates laud gun safety law, but ‘we can’t rest’

TYLER RUSSELL / CONNECTICUT PUBLIC Members of the Newtown Action Alliance and Newtown Interfaith Council hold a vigil May 26, 2022, in the days after the school shooting that killed 19 school children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas.

After taking a brief pause last week to celebrate one year since the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, a group of gun safety advocates from Connecticut quickly returned to Washington, D.C., to push for more change.

They took a moment in West Hartford to acknowledge what they had been fighting for alongside hundreds of other people: the first major gun bill Congress passed in nearly 30 years. But within days of the event, they were back to their daily work of pressing elected officials to do more to curb gun violence.

A number of advocates are holding more meetings this week, primarily with the offices of Republican lawmakers, to lobby for Ethan’s Law, a measure passed by Connecticut that requires firearms to be secured in the home. A federal version of that law did not make it into the bill crafted last year.

But this time, advocates say, things feel a bit different.

Tara Donnelly said her first trip to Washington to push for safe gun storage was in September 2019. As she lobbies again for Ethan’s Law, she said there is more of an openness since the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act passed last year, though she noted that progress is still slow.

“The difference now is that there are more people coming to the table. The conversations are less divisive, particularly when it comes to Ethan’s Law,” said Donnelly, whose parents from Fairfield were killed in 2005 by a stolen unsecured gun. “It’s less of a partisan issue.”

Po Murray, the chairwoman of Newtown Action Alliance, said her group has for years brought gun violence survivors across the U.S. to meet with Republicans who have resisted such measures but could possibly become open to them.

That advocacy did not convince every GOP lawmaker, but they say they helped pave the way for legislation that seemed unthinkable for years – breaking entrenched political gridlock to pass the first major federal gun bill in nearly 30 years.

“We set the stage for that bill to be negotiated with Republicans for many years before the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was passed,” said Murray, whose neighbor killed 20 students and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. “These types of meetings with constituents from all over the nation played a huge role in having them vote with Democrats.”

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act has been the culmination of years of fits and starts of legislation in Congress and the ongoing work of community organizers and activists in the gun safety movement.

That changed on May 24, 2022, following a mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which occurred just 10 days after another mass shooting at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y. And after a month of intense negotiations led by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a bipartisan compromise passed a Congress narrowly controlled by Democrats and was signed into law by President Joe Biden.

Murphy said he saw a “paradigm shift” in the gun safety movement — the point at which change was possible after years of resistance and gridlock. But he is also quick to acknowledge the long life cycle of movements where reform happens more incrementally and over many years.

“I believe we are in an era in which the gun safety movement is going to consistently win, and we will eventually have universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons,” Murphy said in an interview. “I don’t think that all happens in the next two years, but I think we are in a moment where the gun safety movement has more power than the gun lobby.”

“It’s important for any movement to celebrate its successes,” he said. “Good movements are always focused on the future, but you can’t convince people to sign up and stick with you if they don’t see that their advocacy pays off.”

The past year for gun safety advocates has been a balancing act of celebration and relief of passing reforms and the ongoing frustration with Congress for not doing more sooner, especially when it comes to background checks and assault weapons.

There have been more mass shootings so far in 2023 than there have been days in the year, according to a database from the Gun Violence Archive. But Americans are still most affected by daily gun violence, particularly in communities of color.

Sean Reeves, the outreach and community engagement coordinator for Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said he has been faced with gun violence in some way since age 13. He lost his own 16-year-old son in 2011 when he was hit by a bullet while pulling out of a driveway.

Reeves said he is heartened by the fact that the new federal law is doling out millions of dollars for community programs like those in New Haven. But he noted that many of the people making those decisions have not personally experienced things like poverty, which he said is “really the root cause of community gun violence.”

He said more Black leaders and other people of color should be at the table when making decisions on how to address gun violence in communities, particularly in how to allocate resources for underfunded groups that do not have the bandwidth to apply for federal grants like the ones in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

“As a parent of a slain child due to community gun violence, I sometimes cringe at the fact that I don’t see a lot of people who look like me being represented in a lot of the rooms currently,” Reeves said.

“We have problems buried in our DNA,” particularly for people of color, he added. But “this is not just an issue of Black people or minorities. It’s a world issue. Nobody is safe.”

Gun safety advocates around the country are still vigorously pushing for more substantive measures like universal background checks and a restoration of the federal assault weapons ban that did not make it into the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

“The fact that something got done and that parties got together … is certainly a feat, however, this is just the beginning, and we can’t rest and say ‘OK, mission accomplished,’” Jeremy Stein, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said. “Quite the opposite.”

Early results of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act

While it is still early in the year, Murphy argued that the decline in homicide rates in the biggest U.S. cities is a promising sign that the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is likely working along with a range of state laws.

The new law implemented enhanced background checks for buyers under the age of 21, criminal penalties for straw purchasers and gun traffickers, funding for states to create “red flag” laws that would keep firearms out of the hands of people who are a danger to themselves or others, and additional funding for community violence prevention programs, schools and mental health services.

Advocates like Murray of Newtown Action Alliance argued that the lack of universal background checks and an assault weapons ban is “still going to cause significant harm to families.” But they are seeing early results showing that the law is working as it intended.

Since the passage of the law last June, about 102,000 of these background checks were conducted for purchasers between the ages of 18 and 20. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System denied 960 of those transactions. Of them, 206 were directly attributed to the expanded background checks in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Connecticut’s Special Licensing and Firearms Unit said that there have been no denials of transactions in the state as a result of the expanded checks.

The law also seeks to incentivize states to implement red flag laws with $750 million in funding over the next five years. In the past year, Michigan and Minnesota enacted red flag laws, bringing the total number of states with such measures to 21 as well as the District of Columbia. Colorado, Illinois and Vermont also enhanced their existing laws. Connecticut recently made updates to its own red flag law that first passed in 1998.

“I have been pleasantly surprised at how aggressive the administration has been in implementing this law,” he said. “This law has been implemented on a schedule faster than I would have predicted.”

Connecticut seen as the ‘template’ for gun laws

As lawmakers and activists look to reshape how Congress tackles the issue, they consider Connecticut as the “forefront” of the gun safety movement with a “template” they believe should be replicated across the U.S.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, the state strengthened the state’s assault weapons ban and required background checks for all firearm purchases. Since then, Connecticut has gradually updated its gun laws with its most recent one coming out of the 2023 legislative session. The latest law includes banning the open carry of firearms, expanding the prohibition of assault weapons and strengthening the rules on securing a gun.

Gun storage was seen as another glaring omission left out of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Ethan’s Law passed in Connecticut after Ethan Song, a teenager from Guilford, accidentally shot himself in 2018 with an unsecured gun at a neighbor’s house. It requires gun owners to properly store a firearm whether it is loaded or unloaded to prevent a minor under 18 or a prohibited person from accessing it, though it has since been expanded to all situations.

Since then, gun safety supporters have wanted to push similar versions across the country and at the federal level. They cite research that shows 80% of those who commit school shootings stole the firearm from within their home, according to the National Institute of Justice.

During last summer’s negotiations, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., tried to win over Republicans to include Ethan’s Law into the compromise bill. Such a measure has been a top priority for him since meeting Ethan’s parents, Kristin and Mike Song.

Blumenthal said negotiators came “heartbreakingly close” to getting Ethan’s Law into the bill, which has left advocates disappointed. He said some lawmakers might have been concerned about what the penalties could look like for violating safe storage laws, but he is hopeful Congress can try passing it again in the future along with measures to stop the misleading marketing of firearms and rein in ghost guns.

“I am still unclear as to why exactly it wasn’t part of the package — in the sense of the motives of colleagues who resisted,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “I’m not going to make it personal. Our negotiating partners are potentially sources of cooperation in the future. I’m still very hopeful it can be a point of common ground.”

“We were under time pressure, and I deeply regret we were unable to include it,” he added.

The National Rifle Association has safety guidelines that say to “store guns so they are not accessible to unauthorized persons,” and its website notes various gun storage and locking devices. But it also generally opposes laws dictating storage, noting it “does not support top-down on-size-fits-all government mandates on how to store firearms.”

Resistance of Republicans and gun rights advocates

Any future progress, however, is largely dependent on the political makeup of Congress and the willingness of Republicans to back more gun reforms.

More than two dozen Republicans in the House and Senate voted for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and many have openly praised the early outcomes of the law.

“I think it’s doing what we intended, and, quite honestly, a lot of the arguments that people opposed to the bill used just did not pan out,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., one of the lead GOP negotiators of the bill, said in an interview in early June. “There’s not a single negative trend in anything we implemented.”

But most appear resistant to taking more votes on measures largely supported by the public, such as universal background checks, an assault weapons ban and safe storage rules. And gun rights groups have taken aim at state laws since the Supreme Court ruled against a New York law that placed restrictions on where gun owners could carry firearms outside of their home.

We the Patriots USA, a gun rights group based in Idaho, filed a lawsuit against Connecticut’s new gun update shortly after Gov. Ned Lamont signed it into law.

“The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is clear in that ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ This law severely infringes upon the Second Amendment rights of the people of Connecticut,” Brian Festa, an attorney and co-founder of the group, said earlier this month. “We will not allow this to go unchallenged, and we are confident that the United States Supreme Court will strike down this egregious violation of our natural rights.”

Overall, lawmakers in both parties seemed skeptical about the ability of passing additional gun reforms in the current session of Congress. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who voted for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, sounded more focused on Republican-led gun measures. But there could be some openness to tweaking the current law.

“I doubt … we’ll do much in this Congress. But there are some ideas,” Tillis said. “And some could be fine tuning and enhancements to what we put together. But I’m not optimistic that we’d get much else done in this Congress.”

But those intimately involved in helping to pass the gun safety law cautioned against predicting when that could happen. 

“Predictions about legislative progress are really fraught with error. A single incident can change the calculus dramatically, Uvalde changed the political landscape on gun violence prevention in the Capitol literally almost overnight, and there’s the potential for it happening again,” Blumenthal said. “There’s no really predicting when the opportunity might arise [to] achieve some incremental progress.”

The path forward for states and Congress

Advocates say they have seen glimmers of hope in Congress, though they acknowledge the steep hurdles that still lie ahead. And with a now divided government and Republicans narrowly controlling the House, there are low expectations for immediate progress at the federal level.

Because of that, they see states as the main venue for more change when it comes to gun safety, though they argue efforts on both levels need to continue. Stein of Connecticut Against Gun Violence pointed out that many guns come from states with weaker laws. For Connecticut, he said, many firearms that make it into the state originated from nearby places like Maine.

“Our philosophy has always been … that the future of gun violence prevention is at the state level,” Stein said. “However, that alone isn’t enough, because there aren’t any borders when we’re talking about gun violence.”

For many of these advocates, the work is personal, as they have experienced loss themselves.

At last week’s summit in Connecticut, Nelba Márquez-Greene, whose daughter Ana Grace was among the victims at the Sandy Hook school shooting, said she is often defined as a “Sandy Hook mom.” Gun violence survivors around Connecticut described the challenge of simultaneously grieving loved ones while doing the work to prevent similar loss.

“I think it’s difficult that so much is left to survivors and those who have experienced it firsthand to be the leaders towards change,” Donnelly said. “But at the same time, we are driven by the fact that we know firsthand how catastrophic the consequences are, and we’ll never stop fighting in memory of our loved ones.”

While the attention has largely been on lawmakers enacting or resisting reforms, Murphy has given credit to the movements behind such change like the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

“I hope they know that it’s their work that has allowed us to get to the point where we’re finally able to pass things and beat the gun lobby,” Murphy said. “Whenever I leave this work, it’ll be how those families judge my time in public office that will matter more than anything else.”

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.

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