Legislative leaders pledged bipartisan cooperation and quick action Friday at the first meeting of their new task force on changing state laws and policies on gun control, school security and mental health in response to the Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown.
Also Friday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy discussed similar efforts on the federal level in a 75-minute White House meeting with Vice President Joe Biden. "We had a frank discussion about mental health and gun control," Malloy said in a telephone interview Friday night.
In Hartford, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, opened the afternoon session in the Legislative Office Building by calling for a moment of silence for the victims of Newtown, which is part of his district. He broke the silence shortly afterward by saying that citizens want "intelligent" deliberations that are "above partisan bickering."
"We can and will do that on behalf of the people of Newtown, in memory of those we've lost," and for all state residents, he said. "Not only can we lead to making our state a better and safer place — we can set an example for other states and our representatives down in Washington to follow our lead. … I know we will get there."
They want to get there quickly with at least the first round of legislative fixes, the leaders said.
"The expectation is that we will be able to take … action hopefully before the end of February," said House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden. "That means a lot of work between now and then, and a lot of evaluation."
"Working quickly does not necessarily mean, and should not mean, working in haste," Sharkey said. "I think we need to be drawing in as much information as we can, from as many sources as we can, to make sure that what we are doing is … keeping our children and our communities safe."
House Minority Leader Larry Cafero, R-Norwalk, said: "I think all any of us could ask for … as we proceed through this process is tolerance, civility, understanding [and] bipartisan cooperation."
"I believe that we should … be bold, to be strong and to be comprehensive in our work," said state Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn. "We can respond quickly and decisively, and still do it in a thoughtful and deliberative way."
Williams said he was "pleased that we are able to do this not behind closed doors, but with transparency, with the public invited to participate" in four public hearings.
Three of the hearings will be hosted in Room 2C of the LOB by task force subcommittees focusing on different issues: school security on Friday at 9:30 a.m., gun safety on Jan. 28 at 10 a.m., and mental health on Jan. 29 at 10 a.m. The task force, as a whole, will travel to Newtown High School for a fourth public hearing on Jan. 30 at 6 p.m.
About 50 members of the House and the Senate — whose combined membership is 187 — are on the task force, including the Democratic and Republican leaders of various committees that will need to approve any legislation before it goes to the floor of either chamber for a vote.
All four legislators with parts of Newtown in their districts are on the task force, and one of them, newly elected Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, asked at Friday's meeting that as lawmakers confront gun control and other potentially divisive issues, they conduct themselves with the same sensitivity, dignity and generosity as the citizens and leaders of his community. He said that Newtown First Selectman Patricia Llodra, for example, has helped prevent the situation locally "from becoming a circus," and "we've done a wonderful job at protecting the privacy of the families."
"We do have an opportunity to do something significant here," said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven. "And we have, I believe, a mandate to do something significant. And we need to move as quickly as we can in a reasonable way."
Among the most prominent proposals that legislative leaders have said they favor are closing loopholes in the state's ban on assault weapons so that it covers the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the weapon used by 20-year-old Adam Lanza in the Newtown killings. Another bill would prohibit high-capacity ammunition magazines containing more than 10 bullets. Lanza used 30-round magazines in the killings.
Malloy, Biden Meet
Such state legislation won't be strong enough if other states don't have the same restrictions, gun-control advocates say, and Malloy went to Washington on Friday to talk with the vice president about subjects including parallel legislation at the federal level that was proposed during the week by President Barack Obama. Malloy had been invited to Wednesday's speech by the president in the nation's capital, but couldn't attend because of prior commitments.
Meeting in the White House's West Wing, the Democratic governor, Biden and staff members for both discussed Obama's proposed program of executive and legislative action — including a federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that would eliminate differences "across state borders," Malloy said.
The federal legislation needs to be tough and comprehensive because in the past it's been impossible to leave any exceptions "and have the NRA [National Rifle Association] not drive a truck through it," Malloy said. "Reasonableness is met by unreasonableness in these discussions."
Malloy added that "high on our hope list" is congressional passage of Obama's proposal to "close all the loopholes" in the system of checking the backgrounds of prospective gun buyers for possible criminal convictions or mental health problems.
Such checks happen when guns are purchased from federally licensed dealers. But they aren't required for an estimated 40 percent of gun purchases that happen between private individuals, many of them at gun shows. Malloy said there's a need for "universal background checks" covering "anybody, anywhere" who wants to buy any kind of gun or rifle.
Biden did much of the research that led to Obama's proposals during weeks of meetings with individuals and groups.
"The vice president is sharing a lot of information with us" — handing over materials that "we're going to go through" for use in Connecticut, Malloy said. "It was very helpful." One of the aides in the meeting Friday was Malloy's chief of staff, Mark Ojakian.
Malloy will stay in Washington over the weekend, participating in a "day of service" Saturday sponsored by the White House, and addressing the United States Conference of Mayors, also on Saturday. He'll be attending Obama's second inauguration on Monday.
Malloy has appointed his own commission to study possible legislative and executive responses at the state level to the Newtown tragedy. It will meet for the first time on Thursday, and is supposed to make recommendations by mid-March. The legislative task force that met Friday in Hartford will be trying to get information from Malloy's panel on an early basis, so the General Assembly can act by the end of February.