HARTFORD, Conn. -- Just a few weeks ago, it appeared Connecticut’s budget deficit woes would be the thorniest issue state legislators would tackle when they return to the state Capitol next month.
But after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14, lawmakers now face the task of trying to pass legislation that somehow addresses the tragedy in which 20 students and six staff members were killed, as well as the gunman and his mother. The legislative session opens Jan. 9, and lawmakers are already discussing possible bills affecting gun control, school safety, mental health care and benefits for first responders.
"There is perhaps a rare opportunity for major legislation that will be supported in a bipartisan manner," said Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn. "From what I’ve heard from my colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, legislators are highly motivated to take comprehensive action."
Legislative leaders, Williams said, would like to see the legislation addressed early in the session, possibly in January or February. The regular session adjourns June 5.
Lawmakers need to move quickly while the public is paying attention and willing to weigh in on proposed changes, said Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, soon to be House speaker. In the past, he said, gun lobbyists have successfully fought attempts to revamp gun control laws, such as placing limits on larger-capacity magazines, with little opposing comment.
"The public has not weighed in on that, in part because they have not been focused on it," Sharkey said. "Unfortunately, the tragedy has brought this issue to the top of the public’s list of things we need to look at. I think that’s a good thing. They’ll feel a need to participate and have a role in shaping the policy."
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said his administration plans to work with legislators in the wake of Newtown.
"We’re going to get things done and I want to do it in a cooperative way as possible," he said, adding how it’s important officials discuss more than just guns, but also access to mental health care and de-stigmatizing mental health treatment.
Eric Brown, an attorney for the union representing Newtown police officers, wants lawmakers to change worker’s compensation benefits to help workers who’ve suffered emotionally from witnessing violent deaths or injuries or their immediate aftermath.
"Posttraumatic stress disorder is a real, legitimate occupational disease," said Brown, who has begun to approach lawmakers.
Some proposals, however, could be hindered by Connecticut’s budget problems. Funds for the fiscal year that begins July 1 are projected to be $1.2 billion short. Sharkey said lawmakers may have to reallocate money.
Williams said there’s an interest, for example, in improving entryways to schools and making them safer. But with more than 1,200 schools, it would cost the state more than $48 million to give each a minimal $40,000 to make improvements.
"And there’s not a whole lot you can do with $40,000," Williams added.
Williams said lawmakers will likely focus on security protocols at schools and whether they’re being followed, such as buzzer systems to allow people to enter the building and procedures for lockdowns.
Some legislators have already announced plans for bills they plan to introduce in the session. State Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, and Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, are calling for a package of changes to the state’s firearms and ammunition laws.
Their proposals include prohibiting the sale and possession of any rifle, shotgun or pistol magazine with a capacity of more than 10 rounds; expanding the definition of assault weapon; imposing a 50-cent sales tax on the sale of ammunition and firearms magazines; requiring a permit to purchase ammunition; and prohibiting online purchases of ammunition.
The gunman in the Newtown shooting was carrying multiple 30-round magazines, police have said.
Robert Crook, executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, said many of the ideas floated already appear to be problematic. For example, he said if magazines are limited to 10 rounds, many semiautomatic weapons would turn "into paperweights" because they require at least 15 round-magazines. That move, he said, could have a negative economic impact on the state, while not solving any problem.
Crook also questioned how a 30-round magazine ban or the proposed ban on online ammunition purchases would even be enforced. He said none of the ideas being floated so far would impact criminals. Rather, he said, they’d affect legitimate gun owners.
He plans to suggest lawmakers focus on improving school safety measures but realizes guns will be in the forefront of the debate.
"I would be amenable to sitting down and having a conference with these people," Crook said. "But minds are made up."