Advocates and opponents of stricter gun laws squared off Monday in the year’s biggest gun hearing as state lawmakers seek to ban homemade “ghost guns’’ and force firearm owners to show their pistol permit when asked by police.
During a public hearing that lasted more than eight hours, the judiciary committee considered seven gun-related bills with lawmakers divided between those seeking “common sense” gun laws and those strongly defending the Second Amendment. In the middle of the emotional hearing, a woman who had threatened in a text message to “blow away” a Republican lawmaker and opponent of stricter gun laws was escorted from the Capitol building.
Advocates are continuing their yearslong push for tougher laws, even though they said Connecticut already has the nation’s third-strongest gun laws and the fifth-lowest gun death rate.
One of the bills states that an owner who is visibly carrying a gun must show a pistol permit when asked by law enforcement. Currently, police must have suspicion of a crime in order to force a gun owner to present the permit. If the gun owner refuses and no crime has been committed, police say there is nothing they can do.
The issue has prompted controversy in West Haven and Bridgeport, where gun owners refused to show their permits when requested by police. Officials said an incident in January 2016 at a Subway sandwich shop in downtown Bridgeport, across from a courthouse, had the potential to escalate when a man repeatedly refused to show his permit. The issue was eventually defused by police and there were no injuries.
State Sen. Rob Sampson, a Wolcott Republican who strongly supports the Second Amendment, said the man in the Subway shop had not committed any crimes.
“I don’t know why it was allowed to escalate,” Sampson said. “This person was minding their own business, like riding down the road or mowing your lawn. … Why would law enforcement need to show up for that purpose?”
“A lawnmower doesn’t shoot bullets. A gun does,” Bridgeport police chief A.J. Perez responded. “When somebody carries a handgun, an AR-15, an AK-47, a shotgun, it alarms people. It scares people.”
But Sampson countered that the bill, if it becomes law, would be rendered meaningless because Connecticut state law cannot override the U.S. Constitution.
The issue also arose in June 2013 when two men were walking on the boardwalk in West Haven with their guns in plain sight in hip holsters.
When stopped by police, one of the men agreed to show his permit. The other did not and was charged with interfering with police. A judge dismissed the case.
Noting the controversy of the issue, Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney of New Haven said he expects that the law, if enacted, would be challenged in court.
Rahim Addul Wright, a medical laboratory scientist from Naugatuck, said he was concerned the potential law could be used for racial profiling, and it could be difficult “for people in my shoes.”
“I believe that if I’m doing something suspicious, then by all means, ask me for my permit,” said Wright, who was wearing a T-shirt from the pro-gun Connecticut Citizens Defense League. “I’m worried about getting gas at Costco. … I should not be denied my Second Amendment right.”
Some lawmakers also called for passing a bill that would place new requirements on gun owners to ensure their firearms are stored safely and remain out of the hands of children. The measure was proposed after the death of Ethan Song, a 15-year-old from Guilford who accidentally shot himself in the head with a handgun owned by his friend’s father last year.
State Rep. Vincent Candelora, a North Branford Republican who has voted against gun control bills in the past, stepped forward and said he favors Ethan’s Law.
Danny Brandt of Cromwell, a member of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, challenged the safe storage law, saying burglars would break into homes because they would know homeowners could not get to their guns quickly.
“If they come in my house, they’re going to find out I’m breaking the law,” Brandt, 77, told the committee. “I call it the burglars’ rights bill.”
Lawmakers are also seeking to ban so-called ghost guns that can be assembled by obtaining parts through the Internet.
Jeremy Stein, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said ghost guns are essentially undetectable without serial numbers and are circulating throughout the state.
“You can buy all the parts you need to make your own gun without a background check … and you can build that right now in the privacy of your own home,” Stein said.
Lawmakers and advocates said a person would need the proper machinery and skills to make the gun safe and functional. Building a gun at home for personal use is not a crime, lawmakers said.
During the hearing, a woman was asked to leave the state Capitol after she texted her daughter that if she had a gun she would “blow away” Sampson and members of the National Rifle Association.
Lt. Glen Richards of the Capitol police said the woman’s text message was spotted by another person in the hearing room. She was removed from the room, was not arrested and departed from the building without any further disturbance.
“This day has been rough for me — seeing the hostility” on all sides of the issue, Sampson said.
The judiciary committee is expected to vote on the gun bills by the committee’s deadline on April 12.