Magazines that fed bullets into the primary firearm used to kill 26 children and adults at a Connecticut school would have been banned under state legislation that the National Rifle Association and gunmakers successfully fought.
The shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Adam Lanza, 20, used a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle with magazines containing 30 rounds as his main weapon, said Connecticut State Police Lt. Paul Vance at a news conference Sunday.
A proposal in March 2011 would have made it a felony to possess magazines with more than 10 bullets and required owners to surrender them to law enforcement or remove them from the state. Opponents sent more than 30,000 emails and letters to state lawmakers as part of a campaign organized by the NRA and other gun advocates, said Robert Crook, head of the Hartford- based Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, which opposed the legislation.
"The legislators got swamped by NRA emails," said Betty Gallo, who lobbied on behalf of the legislation for Southport- based Connecticut Against Gun Violence. "They were scared of the NRA and the political backlash."
Proponents abandoned the legislation, which drew opposition from gunmakers including Sturm, Ruger & Co. In addition to the emails and letters, more than 300 pro-gun activists, including many NRA members, attended a committee hearing to oppose it, said Gallo, a Hartford-based lobbyist for more than 35 years.
The Fairfax, Va.-based NRA, which describes itself as the nation's foremost defender of Second Amendment rights, works to defeat gun limits nationally and in states, and has successfully championed permissive firearms laws.
Since a 1994 federal assault-weapon ban expired in 2004, Congress hasn't enacted major firearms regulations other than a law aimed at improving state reporting for federal background checks. The gun lobby's power was illustrated during the 2012 presidential campaign when, after mass shootings, neither President Barack Obama nor his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, called for restrictions on gun ownership.
In Newtown, Lanza also had two handguns, a Glock and a Sig Sauer, and fired hundreds of bullets, said Vance. Authorities also took a shotgun from the car he drove, Vance said. The guns belonged to Nancy Lanza, Adam's mother, according to a law- enforcement official who asked for anonymity because of a continuing investigation.
Both sides in the debate disputed the role of high-capacity magazines in the Dec. 14 school shooting.
Crook said state legislation "wouldn't have made a difference."
"We already have a lot of good gun laws on the books," Crook said. "You can't control people who have never done anything wrong before and then just go off the deep end."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in an interview that high-capacity magazines "made the crime all the more deadly" and called for limits.
The media office of the NRA didn't respond to emails seeking comment about the shooting or the law, or return phone messages left with an answering service.
The Connecticut shooting is the latest mass murder in which the gunman's arsenal included a high-capacity magazine. Connecticut's bill was written in response to an attack last year in Tuscon, Ariz., that killed six and injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, said Gallo. Jared Lee Loughner was sentenced to life in prison for the shootings in which he used a 33-round magazine in a Glock 19.
In July, James Holmes clipped a 100-round drum magazine into the Smith & Wesson semi-automatic rifle police say he fired into a Colorado theater, killing 12 and wounding 58.
"It's the large capacity weaponry that's the problem when it comes to mass murder, because of the ability to kill lots of people in a short time without even reloading," said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "Prohibitions against assault weapons, especially high-capacity magazines, can help."
Last year, Andrew Jennison, an NRA lobbyist at the time, told Connecticut lawmakers there was "no correlation" between crime and magazine capacity, pointing to the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., in which 33 people died. In that shooting, the deadliest in U.S. history, Seung-Hui Cho used 10- and 15- round magazines.
"Even pistols with rapid loaders could have been about as deadly in this situation," Jennison said, according to a transcript of the committee hearing. "It is the criminal use of firearms, not mere possession of a magazine with an arbitrary number of rounds."
Connecticut's gun laws are fifth-strictest among states, according to a 2011 scorecard from the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which describes itself as the country's largest gun-control lobby.
Connecticut is among six states that require background checks on all handgun sales, according to the San Francisco- based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Connecticut has a measure, sometimes referred to as the "turn in your neighbor" law, that lets state police obtain a warrant to confiscate firearms from anyone posing an imminent risk of harming someone. Police obtained nearly 300 warrants and seized more than 2,000 guns in 10 years after the law was passed in 1999, according to a state Office of Legislative Research report.
Still, gun-control advocates couldn't pass the ban on high- capacity magazines.
Gallo said she counted a majority of the 45-member Judiciary Committee in favor of the bill. After the meeting, Gallo said she could get a commitment from just seven lawmakers to support it. She said she asked the co-chairmen, State Sen. Eric Coleman and State Rep. Gerald Fox, not to put the bill up for a vote. Coleman and Fox didn't return calls seeking comment.
"If we know we're going to lose, we're not going to take it to a vote," said Ron Pinciaro, director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Gun Violence.
James Debney, chief executive office of Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., wrote to Fox before the hearing that the proposal would "drastically impact the numerous firearms companies in Connecticut and across New England."
"Connecticut cannot afford to lose these jobs," Debney wrote, adding that 10 of the Springfield, Massachusetts, company's top 30 suppliers were based in Connecticut.
Jake McGuigan, government-relations director for the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, opposed the bill, pointing to more than 622,000 firearms in the state that could accept high-capacity magazines.
If gun owners weren't reimbursed, at a cost to the state of at least $29 million, he warned lawmakers of "a class action lawsuit on the taking of that."
McGuigan also said there would be costs for the state's $1.3 billion firearms industry. Home to gunmakers Sturm, Ruger & Co., Mossberg Corp. and Colt Defense LLC, Connecticut's gun industry supports 5,400 jobs and pays $81 million in state taxes, he said.
The bill would restrict the commercial market for those companies, McGuigan said.
"I'm not sure that's something that we want to do in this economic environment," he told lawmakers. "I don't think we want to lose any business, whether it's five employees or 30 employees or Colt Firearms, which has 1,000 union jobs."
Michael Fifer, Ruger's president and chief executive officer, told the committee that high-capacity magazines are needed for self defense.
A third of aggravated assault and robbery victims were attacked by multiple offenders, he said. High-capacity magazines provided more protection to citizens prone to miss their intended target in stressful situations, he said.
"The regulation of magazine capacity will not deter crime, but will instead put law-abiding citizens at risk of harm," Fifer wrote in a letter to committee members. "The bill, if enacted, also would expose law-abiding citizens to criminal prosecution for unintentionally possessing prohibited magazines -- magazines that were legally acquired and that are largely the norm in new firearms manufacturing."
— With assistance from Freeman Klopott and Phil Mattingly.