Highlighting Connecticut’s role as a national leader in gun safety, President Joe Biden traveled Friday to the state to hail the most comprehensive gun law in the past three decades and renew his call for a federal ban on assault weapons.
As the marquee speaker at a major national gun summit, Biden celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which he signed into law.
More than 600 people gathered in West Hartford at the University of Hartford’s Lincoln Theater, a small venue that was chosen for the invitation-only summit long before Biden was confirmed as the main attraction. All seats were filled, and supporters were standing against the wall on the theatre’s far side.
“As a kid, I came out of a different movement — the civil rights movement,” Biden told the enthusiastic crowd.
The gun safety movement is on the front lines because of daily violence in the United States, he said.
“Every damn day in America,” Biden said, his voice rising. “A lot of you are tired. I get it. … We will never yield on this issue. Never. Never. Never. Never. We cannot give up. … We will ban assault weapons in this country. … It won’t be easy. … Look what you’ve already done in Connecticut and around the country. … We can get this done.”
Looking into the crowd from the stage, Biden urged them to keep battling on the issue.
“Some in this room have turned your pain into purpose,” Biden said. “You’re the reason why I’m so optimistic about the future. … You’re changing our culture. You’re changing our politics.”
Turning to former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords in the crowd, Biden said, “Gabby has more courage than most people I’ve ever known. … Gabby, I love you.”
Biden reminded the crowd of the long-running national polarization over gun control as advocates battle against Second Amendment supporters over one of the most emotional issues in America.
“A year ago, the conventional wisdom is we would never get any Republican support. Period,” Biden said. “It’s an important first step. … Whether you’re Democrats or Republicans, we all want them to be safe. … We want our children to have freedom to learn instead of ducking and covering in a classroom.”
In 2020, guns became the top killer of children in America — more than cancer and car accidents.
Now 80, Biden said he did not realize years ago that the gun manufacturers were immune from legal liability.
Noting the power of governors, Biden hailed the recent tightening of gun restrictions by Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislature.
“Look what the gov has done here in Connecticut,” Biden said.
Earlier at the day-long summit, some survivors held photos of loved ones who had been killed by gun violence. One woman said America is now a whole nation of survivors. Still, the mood was hopeful, with inner city groups and large national gun violence groups slated to collaborate in a search for solutions.
The event was not open to the public at large, but numerous gun safety groups were present with different colored T-shirts for each group, such as orange for Connecticut Against Gun Violence. Various group members gathered for photographs and selfies around U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a key player in writing the bipartisan legislation and a national leader on gun control.
Murphy and his staff largely organized the summit, along with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and others as co-sponsors.
The event opened with remarks by Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who described Murphy as “the single strongest voice” in the U.S. Congress for gun safety. Bronin generated applause from the partisan crowd by saying that the gun control movement is “stronger than the NRA by far.”
He described multiple shootings in Hartford, including the recent death of a 12-year-old girl who got caught in the crossfire not far from the state Capitol.
With Lamont standing next to him, Bronin noted the bill recently signed by the governor that tightens Connecticut’s gun laws.
The gun laws are passed “because of you, because of the movement,” Lamont told the crowd. “I love the fact that Connecticut is a leader. We lead. This is how laws happen. It starts with you.”
Noting that Connecticut was once known as “the arsenal of democracy” with numerous gun manufacturers, Lamont said that times have changed. The work, he said, must continue.
“In many cases, our cops are being outgunned,” Lamont said. “We’ve got to get the illegal guns off the streets.”
Saying that Second Amendment supporters frequently say the problem is mental health, not guns, Lamont said the state is addressing both.
“Every time you tell me it’s not about the guns — it’s about the guns,” Lamont said.
Lamont then introduced Murphy, who received a standing ovation from the partisan crowd.
“I want to thank the thousands of people who are joining us online today,” Murphy said to the capacity crowd in the theatre. “This summit is a small show of this movement’s collective power. … We should do it more often.”
The passage of the law last year “represented a paradigm shift,” Murphy said, predicting that a federal assault weapons ban will be passed in the future. “I don’t want you to be satisfied with incremental progress, but I want you to demand it. … Eventually, politicians pay attention to the squeakiest wheel. … We are in this moment that victory is going to be pretty consistent if we keep up our work.”
Murphy introduced Biden, saying that the bill would never have become law without Biden — in a renewal of the past.
“It’s been 30 years since Joe Biden beat the NRA,” Murphy said, referring to the federal assault weapons ban that later expired and has not been renewed. “I believe the next decade is our movement’s decade.”
Opposition to Biden by GOP
During the summit, state Republican chairman Ben Proto blasted both Biden and Lamont. He said that Lamont’s recent ban on “open carrying” of guns “does nothing for the most dangerous neighborhoods in Connecticut.” Proto said Biden was “cheerleading on the trampling of our citizens’ clear constitutional rights” by imposing gun restrictions.
Proto added, “Joe Biden and Ned Lamont are completely out of touch with the real problems Hartford residents are facing. … It’s time Joe Biden and Democrats stop attacking law-abiding citizens and start focusing on those criminals who are intent on destroying neighborhoods and families.”
In the same way, House Republican leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford ripped Biden, saying legislation harms law-abiding citizens and the visit “won’t do a single thing to improve public safety in our communities or anywhere else in the nation.”
The summit, known as The National Safer Communities Summit, is a signature event with additional keynote addresses by national Education Secretary Miguel Cardona of Meriden and Giffords, a national gun-control advocate who suffered serious injuries when she was shot in the head in January 2011 by a mentally disturbed shooter in her home state of Arizona in a supermarket parking lot.
The event was held at the University of Hartford, where President Barack Obama spoke on gun safety in April 2013 to a packed gymnasium of more than 3,000 people following the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
The summit is designed to mark the first anniversary of The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which was the biggest gun safety law in three decades.
What the federal law does
Supporters cite the law as the most important bipartisan gun control legislation in the past three decades.
The law largely closes the “boyfriend loophole” to block those convicted of domestic violence in the future from legally buying a gun, makes more sellers register as federally licensed firearms dealers so that they must conduct criminal background checks on potential buyers, and allows more time for extended background checks to search the mental health and juvenile records for those under 21 seeking to buy a gun.
The measure also cracks down on illegal gunrunners, earmarks money for community violence prevention, and provides $15 billion for addressing school safety and mental health issues, often cited as a reason for mass shootings. The law earmarks funding for “red flag” laws nationwide, including the first state law that dates back more than two decades in Connecticut following a workplace shooting in March 1998 at the state lottery headquarters in Newington.
Since his speeches on the Senate floor, Murphy has become a leader in the gun safety movement and has appeared on national television on CNN and MSNBC. Along with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, Murphy is credited with helping mold the bipartisan coalition that voted 65-33 with 15 Republicans breaking with their party to vote for the bill with the Democrats.
“The outcome would have been inconceivable a few years ago,” Murphy told the enthusiastic crowd Friday. “Now, for the first time, it is gun safety voters, not the NRA, who matter most in Washington, D.C.”
The latest statistics, he said, show that gun violence rates “might be falling by more than 10% in some places” around the country in the first year after the new law.
Not far from his Hartford home, Murphy told the story of meeting with young children about gun violence and their concerns about walking to school. The children told him that they are able to tell the difference in the sounds between gun shots and fireworks.
The girl at one point turned to Murphy and said, “I shouldn’t need to know the difference.”
During a panel discussion, Murphy and fellow panel members said it is a myth that a gun would make a person safer. If that was true, the United States would be the safest country in the world.
“It’s amazing that myth has taken hold,” Murphy said. “For every 1% increase in gun ownership in a community … there is a 1% increase” in crime.
One of the many speakers, Nelba Marquez-Greene of Newtown, told the crowd that her identity in many ways has been reduced to three words: “Sandy Hook Mom.”
Marquez-Greene said she drove into the main entrance of the University of Hartford as protestors held signs defending the Second Amendment regarding the right to bear arms.
“This morning was hard coming in, seeing all the people who are against trying to save lives,” she told the crowd. “I’m a therapist and a former teacher, so you’re not leaving here without a lesson.”
Citing the “Ode to Joy,” she said that the battle would continue — prompting a standing ovation.
The summit included the most prominent gun-control groups around the nation and in Connecticut, including BRADY, GIFFORDS, Sandy Hook Promise, Newtown Action Alliance, March For Our Lives, Moms Demand Action, Students Demand Action, Every Town for Gun Safety and Connecticut Against Gun Violence, among others.
U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, a Democrat who flipped former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s seat in Georgia, sat on stage during a panel with Murphy and Blumenthal. They were introduced as three of the most influential players in the gun debate in Washington, D.C.
“I am a Black woman who ran in ruby red Georgia” on a gun-control platform, she said. “We drive the policy federally, but it takes all the work that you are doing on the ground. Any of our colleagues in Washington that are getting in our way, I’m pretty sure they’re not going to have a job pretty soon.”
Blumenthal spoke next, saying the nation needs to expand rules regarding “safe storage” of guns in homes so that they cannot get into the hands of children, such as Ethan Song, a 15-year-old Guilford teen who accidentally shot himself in 2018 with a gun that he obtained at a friend’s home.
“We’re going to pass Ethan’s Law” at the federal level, Blumenthal said.
That response drew a standing ovation from advocates who had successfully pushed for Ethan’s law at the state level in Connecticut.
Blumenthal noted that Kristen and Mike Song were in the audience, and they waved to Blumenthal from the back of the darkened theatre.
“Safe storage used to be a principle of the gun lobby. They taught safe storage,” Blumenthal said.
Gun manufacturers, Blumenthal said, market to a targeted audience of young men with the idea that “here’s your manhood card. Buy an assault weapon.”
Looking at the crowd, Blumenthal said the gun movement is attracting more young people. Those who survived the Sandy Hook shootings and other tragedies are becoming more active.
“They are voting,” Blumenthal said, “and pretty soon, they are going to be running for office.”
Former state education chief Miguel Cardona of Meriden, who is now the national education secretary, said he will continue working to keep teachers and students safe.
“A lock on a school door is no match for an AR-15,” Cardona said.
Christopher Keating can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.