By SUSAN HAIGH, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The National Rifle Association helped bus hundreds of supporters to the Connecticut Capitol on Monday, the latest sign of its stepped-up presence in a state that hasn't typically posed a challenge to the gun rights organization's mission.
The NRA decided a week ago to help organize a lobby day after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy released his package of gun control proposals and a bipartisan legislative panel unveiled competing gun violence recommendations from Democrats and Republicans, said John Hohenwarter, an NRA state liaison.
Legislative leaders are considering those recommendations and others as they try to draft a bipartisan bill for the full General Assembly to consider, likely later this month. The leaders met behind closed doors Monday as the gun rights supporters descended on the Capitol.
Dom Basile, a firearms instructor from Watertown, said he attended Monday's lobby day to make sure what he called onerous and constitutionally questionable legislation does not become law. He opposes proposals to require guns owners to register annually, an expanded assault weapons ban and a ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines.
Basile said he worries lawmakers feel pressured to pass such legislation because the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, carried out by a lone gunman, happened in Connecticut.
"Connecticut's a small state. Sandy Hook is right in our backyard. So everybody in the nation is looking upon Connecticut to do something," he said. "The bottom line is, if all of these bills, all 110 of them, were the law of the land on Dec. 13, still none of them would have prevented Adam Lanza from doing what he did the following day."
Hohenwarter said he would prefer to see Connecticut emerge from the shooting by taking a leadership role in improving school security and mental health, two areas that task forces created by the legislature and the governor are looking at.
"Hopefully what will come out of this is to have our elected officials in this state take a step back and really think this thing through and create good policy, and not made-for-TV lawmaking," Hohenwarter said of the lobby day, which the NRA said drew an estimated 3,000 people. State Capitol Police could not confirm that figure.
Since the shooting, which left 20 first-graders and six educators dead, the NRA had not been particularly visible in Connecticut until Monday. Hohenwarter said the group has hired two lobbyists for this year's legislative session but has followed the debate from behind the scenes, working with lawmakers and keeping a low public profile.
Monday's "lobby day" was co-sponsored the Connecticut Coalition of Sportsmen, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Connecticut Citizens Defense League.
Robert Crook, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition of Sportsmen, noted the NRA's involvement marked its first big political event in Connecticut in a long time. He said gun control bills that have come up in the General Assembly over the past 10 or 15 years have been defeated without major NRA support. Crook, an NRA member, has often been the lone lobbyist fighting gun control legislation.
"But this year, they've thrown everything in the barrel," Crook said of the legislature. "And they're concerned, they're really concerned."
Crook said the NRA helped to pay for buses to bring the gun rights activists to the state Capitol from Cabela's in East Hartford, a large store that sells hunting and fishing equipment. The NRA also handed out stickers and signs that read "NRA: Stand and Fight."
Gun control advocates are ramping up their lobbying efforts, as well. The Newtown Action Alliance is organizing its own "lobby day" on Wednesday to demand changes to gun laws. The group Connecticut Against Gun Violence has plans to soon release an ad campaign that will include online, print and radio ads.
"Given the outpouring of support we have received from across Connecticut, for the first time our organization has the resources to effectively compete with the opposition," said Marty Isaac, president of the CAGV. "The days of being drowned out are over."