Almost four months after suffering the horror of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting that left 20 young children and six adults dead, residents of Connecticut woke yesterday to a raft of new gun control measures that will make their state one of the strictest in the land for firearm owners.
In a sombre and bipartisan vote taken at 2.30am on Thursday, the lower house in the state legislature overwhelmingly approved a package of new restrictions, passed by the state senate hours earlier. Steps include adding 100 new guns to the state’s existing assault weapons ban and establishing new rules for buying ammunition as well as a registry for dangerous weapons offenders, the first in the nation. It was signed later yesterday by Governor Dannel Malloy.
“This is a new and historic model for the country on an issue that has typically been the most controversial and divisive,” Senate leader Donald Williams, a Democrat, said near the end of the debate after reading out the names of the children killed at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown on 14 December. “We in Connecticut are breaking new ground.”
It is by no means clear, however, that the votes in Hartford, the capital of Connecticut, will galvanise other states in the US to follow suit. Some with Democrat majorities and governors, including New York and Colorado, have recently moved significantly to tighten their gun laws. In Colorado’s case it was more in response to last summer’s cinema massacre in Aurora, near Denver, which left 12 people dead. However, the impetus in several other states has been in the other direction.
In addition, efforts by President Barack Obama and some Democrats to cajole Congress into passing tougher federal gun control laws have encountered headwinds stirred by pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA). There appears to be insufficient support for a federal assault weapons ban or limits on clip capacities. At best, Congress may legislate for more stringent background checks for gun buyers, but how stringent remains to be seen.
It is with an eye on Mr Obama and his allies that lawmakers in conservative states with Republican majorities are moving not to toughen controls but loosen them. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, ten states have passed laws to weaken restrictions, including Arkansas, Tennessee, South Dakota and Kentucky. Arkansas, for example, made it possible in January for citizens to carry guns into churches and college campuses.
Most of the steps to relax controls are fairly minor while the gun control laws being passed in states like Connecticut tend to be more sweeping. Most polls show a majority of Americans – including gun owners – favouring at least some toughening of controls. Yet the pushback by Republicans in conservative states and the faltering momentum in Congress means that progress nationally on gun control may end up being patchwork in nature at best.
That mixed response to the tragedy has driven Mr Obama to step up his own lobbying efforts. He will deliver a speech on gun control in Connecticut next week in an effort to increase pressure on Congress. He was in Denver on Wednesday for the same reason. “Why wouldn’t you want to make it more difficult for a dangerous criminal to get his or her hands on a gun?” Mr Obama asked his Colorado audience.