HARTFORD — Less than a week after the Newtown school massacre, state lawmakers are calling for sweeping new restrictions on guns and ammunition — while a key legislative leader says that the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle used in last Friday's shootings would have been banned by a 2001 bill that failed after winning state Senate approval.
The new gun-control proposal, issued Thursday by two Democrats, Sen. Beth Bye and Rep. Robert Godfrey, would expand the definition of an assault rifle, place new restrictions on ammunition purchases and institute a 50 percent tax on bullets, among other changes.
Incoming House Speaker Brendan Sharkey and Senate President Don Williams, also Democrats, plan to discuss gun legislation early in the coming session, which begins Jan. 9, said a spokesman for Sharkey.
Bye, of West Hartford, said she was motivated to raise the issue quickly after hearing from people throughout the state who were horrified by the shootings, and from Nelba Marquez-Greene, the mother of 6-year-old Ana Marquez-Greene, one of 20 first-graders killed at the school. Six women on the school's staff also were shot to death.
"Some people are saying, 'Let's wait [on gun control legislation] until people grieve,'" Bye said. "But if one of the mothers in that tragedy is saying this to me personally, I need to make sure it happens."
Bye said that she's no foe of gun ownership and has supported measures such as Sunday hunting, but that the enormity of last week's assault at Sandy Hook Elementary School has impelled her and other lawmakers to act.
Connecticut has had a ban on assault weapons since 1993, but several efforts to toughen the state's gun laws since then have fallen short.
In 2001, lawmakers tried to tighten the assault weapons ban by adding several weapons to the list — specifically listing the kind of Bushmaster rifle used by gunman Adam Lanza to carry out the massacre in Newtown, Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said this week.
The bill cleared the state Senate after winning bipartisan backing, "but unfortunately ran into some trouble in the House," recalled Looney, who served in the chamber at the time but did not hold his current leadership position. He said there was a "well-orchestrated effort" by sportsmen and other gun enthusiasts to squelch the proposal.
"We wanted to include those guns or knockoffs," Looney said. "If that bill had been passed in 2001, it would not have been legal to have that Bushmaster rifle in Connecticut, the gun that was used in Newtown last Friday."
In 2011, a measure that would have made it illegal to own large-capacity ammunition magazines — those capable of firing 10 rounds or more — never came up for a vote in the legislature's judiciary committee. Hundreds of gun owners went to the Capitol to testify against the bill.
"There are some people who are such extreme fanatical devotees of the Second Amendment that they see any restriction of any kind on any kind of weapon as being the first step down the slippery slope of disarming the populace," said Looney.
During the past legislative session, Looney proposed a bill that would have barred anyone restricted from owning a gun — a category that includes those under the age of 21, convicted felons, people convicted of certain violent misdemeanors and anyone involuntarily committed to a hospital for mental illness in the preceding year — from also owning ammunition. That measure cleared the judiciary committee but never moved forward.
The proposal put forth Thursday by Bye and Godfrey would require a permit to purchase ammunition and would bar the online sale of bullets.
And a bill to create the first-in-the-nation statewide gun registry also failed in 2011. That proposal would have created a database of gun owners modeled after the sex-offender registry. Several cities, including New York, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., have established such registries.
Now lawmakers, with the trauma of Newtown still fresh, are hoping to revive some of those proposals.
Robert Crook, executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, vows to fight them once again.
"I hate to see people taking advantage of this tragedy," Crook said. "They're resurrecting these issues that have failed in the past based on an incident that really doesn't have a lot to do with guns except that was the tool that was used."
Crook said that the ammunition tax, which would exempt bullets purchased and used at firing ranges, is a non-starter. "We're going to be taxed on bullets bought for self-protection, we're going to be taxed on bullets used for hunting but we're not going to be taxed on bullets used at a range? That makes no sense,'' he said.
However, Crook said that his association, which has about 40,000 members throughout the state, would support "common sense" gun legislation that does not criminalize law-abiding gun owners.
"If someone came up with something good, we'd probably go along with that,'' Crook said. "We want to solve a problem, and the problem isn't the guns or ammunition. The problem is the person who perpetrated the act. ... We have good gun laws on the books in Connecticut and they didn't stop this."
Crook predicted that the proposals laid out by Bye and Godfrey would draw hundreds of gun owners to the state Capitol when a hearing on them is held.
But Bye, who once worked with Nelda Marquez-Greene and spent time with her following the shootings, said she believes that the tragedy in Newtown has sharply shifted the tenor of the gun control debate in Hartford.
Rep. Arthur O'Neill of Southbury, deputy House minority leader at large, said: "I would have wished that we would have waited for the last of the funerals to be held before we got as deep into the politics of this." But he also said that "I certainly would give serious thought to everything on that list" and "would not declare any of it 'dead on arrival.'"
"A lot of this sounds very similar to things that have been proposed before that not have gone very far," O'Neill said. But, he said, after the Newtown tragedy, this could be "a moment to do more than might otherwise have been possible to do."
What's necessary, he said, is a deliberate and bipartisan effort to study weaknesses in the state's regulation of firearms and its system of mental health services — much like the legislature's response to the Cheshire murders in 2007.
One example of the complexity of the task, O'Neill said, is that the Democrats' proposals for registering weapons, and then re-registering them every two years, could lead to a large and expensive bureaucracy. This raises the question of whether the state should devote its resources to that effort, or use them to fill gaps in mental health services that might have reached the troubled gunman and prevented the tragedy.
"Let's gather as much information as we can about where our system failed," he said.