After more than 13 hours of debate that was at moments impassioned and agonized, the General Assembly early Thursday approved an historic and far-reaching gun-control bill that proponents said was their toughest-in-the-nation response to the Dec. 14 Newtown school massacre.
The state House of Representatives at 2:26 a.m. gave final legislative approval to the bill by a vote of 105 to 44, with 2 absent. Of the 98 House Democrats present, 13 voted no; and 31 of the 51 Republicans in the hall voted no.
About eight hours earlier, the state Senate had approved it by a 26-10 vote - with two of 22 Democrats and eight of 14 Republicans opposed.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will sign the bipartisan bill into law at noon Thursday in the Old Judiciary Room on the third floor of the state Capitol.
"This is a new and historic model for the country on an issue that has typically been the most controversial and divisive. We in Connecticut are breaking new ground today," Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said near the end of that chamber's six-hour debate.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, whose district includes Newtown, said that since the mass killings, "I've been working, as have others ... to see what we can do to heal that community - if we can do anything. What we can do to make Connecticut safer? ... I'm proud that we've done that."
McKinney brought a hush to the Senate chamber when he said he wanted to be "the voice" for the Dec. 14 victims - and then slowly recited the names of the 20 first-graders and six women who were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown by a disturbed 20-year-old, Adam Lanza, who killed himself as police arrived.
The Senate and House votes came after weeks of negotiations between Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, who said they were determined to produce a bipartisan bill as the nation watched closely to see how Connecticut would respond to the tragedy.
The legislation would require universal background checks for purchasers of all firearms, and would immediately expand the state's existing ban on assault weapons. The list of banned weapons would include the Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle used by Lanza. Also, the sale and purchase of large-capacity ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds - such as the 30-round magazines used by Lanza - would be prohibited.
In a compromise, owners of those large-capacity magazines would not be required to turn them in, although their use would be restricted and they would have to be registered with the state by Jan. 1, 2014. Likewise, people who already own semiautomatic rifles defined as assault weapons could keep them if they submit to new registration procedures.
Beginning Oct. 1, all purchases of ammunition and long guns would require an eligibility certificate. To obtain certification to buy ammunition, purchasers would have to pass a federal criminal background check. For the first time a dangerous weapon offender registry will be created and penalties for illegal gun trafficking will be expanded.
Even though the legislative outcome was known in advance - with House and Senate leaders saying there was no doubt they had the votes to pass the bill - Wednesday was still a day of tumult in the Capitol.
Hours before the legislative proceedings began, hundreds of gun owners jammed the halls of the building - some carrying signs such as "Connecticut is the unconstitutional state," and many breaking into occasional chants of "just say no!" They booed at gun control supporters who went by, including Ron Pinciaro, director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence.
"Dump Dan the Dictator," said one homemade sign, referring to Malloy, a strong gun control supporter. The governor canceled a scheduled appearance at 11:30 a.m. at an autism group's event in a Capitol room near the Senate, after his state police security detail decided it would be unwise for him to pass through the crowd.
As the Senate was beginning its debate shortly after 12:30 p.m., Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan died in the Newtown attack, said the legislature had "listened to what we asked them to do."
"I'm just very pleased that progress is being made and I'm grateful to the Connecticut legislature for listening to us and for approving one of the strongest gun laws in the country. I appreciate that," she said.
"This is going to be something that takes a long time," Hockley said. "This is just the first step in a multitude of steps. This is progress. Progress is always good."
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman prefaced the Senate's proceedings by asking everyone to show respect to each other during what was expected to be "a very sensitive debate" on the bill, called An Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention And Children's Safety.
'Hard To Breathe'
Williams, the Senate's top leader, opened the debate by recalling the horror of Dec. 14. Legislative leaders were hashing out state budget issues, he said, "when word came to us that there had been a shooting at an elementary school in our state." Later, the details emerged: "All at once, there was a [TV] report that as many as 20 children had been killed together with a number of teachers and administrators. For a few seconds it was hard to breathe."
"At the end of that unimaginable day, we learned that we had lost 20 elementary schoolchildren and six teachers and administrators," Williams said. "They were killed with a weapon of war, a semiautomatic assault rifle, the platform of which was originally designed for the battlefield and for mass killings."
"That was 110 days ago," Williams said. "As we take action today, and as stunned as we are at the events of Newtown, we must also acknowledge this is not the first time in the history of the United States, most importantly the recent history of the United States, that we've confronted gun violence. Think of Columbine High School. A nursing class at a college in Oakland, California. An Amish school in Pennsylvania. Virginia Tech University ..." He mentioned other mass killings, then added: "Every day urban gun crime claims the lives of tomorrow's Americans."
"The tragedy of Newtown demands a response ... that transcends politics," Williams said. "This bill addresses gun violence prevention, school security and mental health services. It is the strongest and most comprehensive bill in the country."
Three hours into the Senate debate, about 3:40 p.m., Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, who supported the bill, summed things up succinctly: "I have never seen a more polarized issue than this."
And opponents, including Republican state Sens. John Kissel and Anthony Guglielmo, argued forcefully.
Kissel, of Enfield, questioned adding "further regulations on guns and ammunition" in a state that already is "touted as having, right now, some of the most tough gun laws in the United States of America." The bill, he said, "goes one step too far."
Guglielmo, of Stafford, said that even before delving into the complexities of the 139-page bill, he knew he would be opposing it because the overall premise was wrong."I didn't need to get into the weeds of the legislation [because] I can't get by the premise," said Guglielmo.
"See, the premise that boggles my mind - and boggled the minds of so many of the people who testified in front of our [legislative] committee - is you have two columns: In one column you have a deranged young man, a mass murderer [who even] hero-worshiped other murderers, apparently," Guglielmo said.
"And then, in the other column, we have ordinary citizens - clean record, work hard, pay their taxes, many of them veterans, want to be left alone. Never caused a problem in the past, won't today, won't tomorrow," Guglielmo said. "So how does this [Senate] connect the dots between the mass murderer and the ordinary citizen? See, that's what I don't get. ...You're punishing the wrong people. It's just that simple. The premise is wrong."
"Just because I'm on this side of the issue doesn't mean that I'm not appalled by what happened in Newtown," Guglielmo said. "I'm a grandfather of eight. I've got three in elementary school." He said that "if I thought that anything in this bill would help to make them safer," he would have voted for it.
Guglielmo and other opponents said the bill contains helpful provisions - such as reinstating a state gun trafficking task force and increasing penalties for illegal gun sales - but goes too far by banning popular weapons used by law-abiding people.
The debate crossed party lines - as, for example, it was supported by Sen. Michael McLachlan, a Danbury Republican who is among the chamber's most conservative members, and opposed by Democratic Sen. Cathy Osten of Sprague.
McLachlan said he wrestled with his feelings about the bill. But after thousands of emails and calls from state residents, and "a painful, sleepless night," he said he decided to back the measure - in part because of a provision that permits current owners of semiautomatic rifles and large capacity magazines to retain them.
But McLachlan listed a couple of other reasons he was voting yes: His western Connecticut district borders Newtown and he is close to the family of Caroline Previdi, one of the young victims.
The shootings changed many people's perspective, including his. "It forced me to take pause and think about this debate in a different way,'' McLachlan said. "Today I'm supporting this bill in hopes that I am properly honoring Caroline Phoebe Previdi."
Meanwhile, Osten said, "People have a right to bear arms and we already have enough restrictions on them. We do not need anymore."
She added that she thinks the bill "gives people a false sense of security.'' Osten, who represents 10 communities in rural eastern Connecticut, said, "I don't think it stops those people who have chosen to act out badly ... Adam Lanza was the one who killed those 20 young children and those six adults. He's the one we should hold accountable today, not the legal gun owners in this state."
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, became emotional as she said she's proud that the state has crafted a sweeping gun control bill.
"But I wish weren't here right now doing this emergency-certified bill," Bye said. "Like everyone sitting here, I wish we could turn back the clock and take back those five minutes .... that's how long it took for that mass destruction, where over 150 bullets were fired at children and at teachers and 26 of them were murdered."
ye recalled one of those children, Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, a bright-eyed 6-year-old who loved to sing and dance. "Her brother and parents will never have that amazing little girl in their lives again,'' Bye said, her voice breaking.
Ana Grace would have turned 7 this week, Bye noted. "We all wish she was having an uneventful birthday and that she would be showered with the love and caring that her family showered on her each day.
"If only ... but we can't turn back the clock, we can only go forward and we've gone forward with collaborative, innovative, ground-breaking legislation."
Less than a half-hour after the Senate approved the bill, the House took it up, with Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, playing a lead role in explaining its provisions.
"We're here with heavy hearts, with a number of [differing] philosophical beliefs,'' said Dargan, co-chairman of the legislature's public safety committee, which held an all-day hearing on gun issues March 15. "We are here tonight, to try to make ... our state a safer place.''
The House's debate featured mostly the same arguments as in the Senate - down to two representatives echoing McKinney's speech by reciting the 26 victims' first names. The two were Newtown's local legislator, Republican Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, and Rep. Robert Godfrey, a Democrat from nearby Danbury.
Even after midnight, the lawmakers appeared in no hurry to reach the conclusion they knew was inevitable, and spoke at length about their personal reactions to the tragedy.
Bolinsky, who won his first term in the House in last November's election, said the killings have made his experience different from that of the typical first-year lawmaker: "How could I know that with my Jan. 9 swearing-in, I would be embraced, and reached out to, by nearly every single person in the Legislative Office Building and the Capitol building? Also, little did I know that so many politicians that I would meet could be so incredibly speechless when they met me. Tears were shed. Lots of hugs. And, I dare say, not the typical freshman experience."
"On Dec. 14, evil visited my town and everything changed," Bolinsky said. "Since then, I've spent countless hours in the community and on the phone, listening to my constituents' feelings, reading correspondence, attending task force meetings, debating the issues and preparing, ultimately, for this day. ... The legislation before us is not perfect, particularly in the area I believe was the most responsible for the tragedy at Sandy Hook, mental health. ... [But] I plan to vote yes on this legislation and I dedicate my vote to the memory of those whose lives were lost that day at Sandy Hook Elementary School... those 26 angels."
Godfrey, a staunch gun-control advocate, said his opinions on the issue were shaped partly by the assassinations of the 1960s, and noted after 1:30 a.m. that it was the morning of April 4, the 45th anniversary of the day in 1968 that Martin Luther King was shot at age 39 as he stood on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Rep. John Frey, R-Ridgefield, said he has nieces and nephews who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School. Five of the 11 the children who escaped a classroom attacked by Lanza ended up in his sister's care that day, he said. His sister's own children were not harmed, but one of them was in a nearby classroom and could have been an easy target, he said.
"I've tried to separate emotion from fact and I think I do a pretty good job of that," Frey said of his past legislative tendencies. But in this instance, the harsh realities of Dec. 14 stir up intense emotions for Frey, whose niece, Joni, knelt by the open casket of a best friend's brother killed in the shooting.
"There are peaks and valleys. These kids are still going through therapy... In the beginning they had difficulty going to sleep. That's gotten better, but as I say, our family is lucky. But who knows what the future will bring... There are 11 students who saw the unmentionable happen. So I think while this bill could be better it could have been a whole lot worse," Frey said, adding that he would vote yes. "I'm not going to encourage people to adopt. You have to do what's in your heart, but I've wrestled with this for some time."
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, summed up for Republicans shortly before 2 a.m., saying: "On Jan 9, [the day lawmakers were sworn in for their current terms,] whether you were a wily veteran or a brand-new freshman, we all knew that we had a specific job to do. As a matter of fact that journey started 25 days before Jan. 9, on Dec. 14th... We all remember where we were on that day."
"On that moment, on Dec. 14, we knew what faced us then.... On that very day, as we watched television reports and read newspapers with our family and our neighbors, we were asked the question...six words: 'What are you going to do?' ...Because of the nature of this horrific event, the country and world were watching us and thinking, 'What are you going to do?'" Cafero said.
"The whole state, let alone this chamber was in mourning then, [and] to some extent is still in mourning," he said. "It's been a very different legislative session for me and, yes, I presume you...There's been a cloud over us... We're a state in mourning after this tragedy."
He kept returning to the question of "what are you going to do?" And he talked of balancing the rights of law-abiding gun owners against the public safety questions presented by assault weapons and magazines. "And we ended up with this bill. ... Not everyone loves this bill." He said some believe "certain parts went too far" in the legislation, "and certain parts didn't go far enough." But he said that's the nature of compromise in the legislative process: seeking "that right balance."
So, he said, the legislative leaders reached an agreement under which "nobody who owns a gun legally in the state of Connecticut was going to have that gun taken away from them. Nobody." And they decided to close a loophole that had allowed people to purchase firearms in many cases without undergoing a federal background check.
House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, concluded the debate just after 2:20 a.m., saying: "I don't think there was a moment [in which] we didn't think about those parents [from Newtown]. It had to be bipartisan. Keeping children safe is not a partisan issue. It's not."
"When everybody walks away thinking, 'I wanted a little bit more,' that's a compromise. That's a true compromise," Aresimowicz said. "I think all of us heard the phrase 'the Connecticut effect.'" A National Rifle Association lobbyist in Wisconsin sparked outrage among gun-control advocates in early February by predictiing that the "Connecticut effect" - that is, public support for new gun restrictions in the wake of the Newtown shootings - would fade away as time passes.
"We heard [about the 'Connecticut effect'] from both sides. It wasn't exclusive to one side or another," Aresimowicz said. "What does that mean - do we have a definition? Tonight, at 2:20 in the morning, I think we have our definition."
Gun control advocates hope that Connecticut's action will become an example to be followed by other state legislatures - and by Congress.
President Barack Obama, who was in Colorado making a gun control speech Wednesday, will visit Hartford Monday in an effort to use the Connecticut law to push Congress to enact tougher gun laws. The U.S. Senate will take up a limited package of firearms restrictions, including expanded background checks, next week.