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11 years after Sandy Hook, CT gun safety advocates seek reforms

Gun violence survivors and activists attend a vigil on December 6, 2023 in Washington, DC. The vigil marked the 11th anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which left 26 people dead.
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People pay tribute to victims of gun violence during the 10th Annual National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence at St. Marks Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, on December 7, 2022.

Gun safety advocates from Connecticut and across the country came back to Washington, D.C., to push for passage of a trio of reforms nearly 11 years since the Sandy Hook school shooting.

They teamed up with most of Connecticut’s congressional delegation to redouble their efforts in passing gun safety legislation that did not make it into federal legislation — the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act — that passed in 2022.

Newtown Action Alliance helped organize 175 gun violence survivors from 28 states in a major lobbying effort in Washington. On Wednesday, they participated in the National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence. And on Thursday, activists and volunteers met with U.S. senators from more than two dozen states to press for more action on guns.

In an emotional event before activists fanned out across the Senate, a group of about 60 people listened to stories from gun violence survivors and families, many holding up photos of victims. They were joined by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District; Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District; and Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District.

While celebrating the momentum and wins secured in the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, they said more work needs to be done when it comes to legislation on restoring a federal assault weapons ban and universal background checks.

Murphy, who was the lead negotiator on that measure, acknowledged the repetitive cycle of advocates and survivors telling their stories to try to spur more change in Congress as the issue remains stalled. And as they marked more than a decade since Sandy Hook, they noted the most recent shootings this week in Texas and Nevada.

“I wish this weren’t the case, but our colleagues pay a little bit more attention when they’re listening to the personal stories of what people have gone through,” Murphy said. “It must be impossible to do this over and over again, but you do.”

“And the cumulative impact of all of that is that the politics have fundamentally changed. No, we have not passed a universal background checks bill. No, we still need to pass an assault weapons ban. But we are finally at this critical moment where the anti-gun-violence movement has more power than the gun lobby.”

Murphy and Blumenthal, along with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tried to advance a pair of gun safety bills — expanded background checks and an assault weapons ban — but both attempts at unanimous consent were blocked by Republicans.

Po Murray, the chairwoman of Newtown Action Alliance, said her group had been in touch with Schumer’s team since September and pushed to bring up that legislation on the Senate floor.

Both of those bills, as well as legislation to require safe gun storage, face uphill battles in a divided Congress. Republicans narrowly control the House, while Democrats have a small majority in the Senate, though most legislation needs support from both parties to pass.

Senate Republicans objected to the legislation, raising concerns about infringing on gun owners’ rights.

“This is not solely about transactions involving guns at gun stores. This is about the father who wishes to pass down a hunting rifle to his son or the friend who wants to lend a shotgun to his neighbor who is in need of protection at the time,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said when objecting to the background checks legislation.

In order to move other bills through Congress, gun safety advocates will need to build more support. Murray said they are currently more focused on efforts in the Senate with a Democratic majority.

Advocates are also in Washington lobbying for Ethan’s Law, a measure passed in Connecticut that requires firearms to be secured in the home. A federal version of that law did not make it into the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

Ethan’s Law passed in Connecticut after Ethan Song, a teenager from Guilford, accidentally shot himself in 2018 with an unsecured gun at a neighbor’s house. It requires gun owners to properly store a firearm whether it is loaded or unloaded to prevent a minor or a prohibited person from accessing it, though it has since been expanded.

Kristin Song attended Thursday’s event along with other family members of victims, including Sam Schwartz, the cousin of Alex Schachter, who was killed in the school shooting at Parkland, Fla., and Judi Richardson, the mother of Darien Richarson, who was killed in Portland, Maine.

Song delivered an emotional reading of something she wrote four weeks after her son died, saying that his death was “100% preventable.”

“If that gun owner had taken seconds, just seconds, to lock up his three handguns, my son would be alive today,” Song said. “I would not be serving a life sentence, and he would not be serving a death sentence.”

Murray said they have made significant progress on Ethan’s Law over the past several years. She noted that the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups “promote safe storage on their website, but they don’t want legislation” requiring it.

“People often talk about this issue as … it’s not political, it’s not partisan,” Hayes said. “It is absolutely political because we have the ability as legislators and lawmakers to make laws that keep people safe.”

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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