New law bans weapons from town-owned property in Woodbridge as gun debate continues
WOODBRIDGE >> People who visit Town Hall, the library, hiking trails or any other town-owned property or building should leave their Glocks and other weapons at home from now on, as the town has joined a growing number in creating a municipal firearms ordinance.
The new measure in Woodridge bans firearms, air guns, air rifles, crossbows, longbows, archery equipment or other weapons from town-owned buildings and property.
Resident and educator Jean Molot, who worked on the measure along with First Selectwoman Ellen Scalettar, said the law “sends a message that we care about the safety of people in this town.”
Scalletar added, “I think that gun violence is a major problem for our society and our country. … This helps make Woodbridge a safer place.”
But Second Amendment enthusiasts claim the new ordinance in Woodbridge — and others like it — actually create more of a danger to the public.
Scott Wilson, president of the nearly 28,000-member Connecticut Citizens Defense League, said the local rules are “feel good” measures to create a “false utopia,” and actually do the opposite of what’s intended by leaving law-biding citizens unarmed in public places where they might need to protect themselves.
“This is a bad deal for the citizens of Woodbridge,” Wilson said “It only emboldens an individual to commit an atrocity.”
There is no centralized database for local ordinances related to firearms.
But attorney Dennis H. Tracey, partner in the New York firm Hogan Lovells, who drafted the law for Woodbridge at no charge, said it’s not that unusual for municipalities to have general rules prohibiting carrying firearms on town property, “although the wording of each is different.”
He said municipalities that have similar bans include North Branford, East Haven, Naugatuck, Meriden and Ansonia. Tracey, a selectman in Weston, said he drafted an ordinance similar to the Woodbridge one for his town.
In East Haven, the law appears even more restrictive than the one adopted in Woodbridge, stating, “No person shall discharge or set off anywhere within the limits of the town or have in his or her possession for such purpose, any pistol, rifle or gun in which may be used any cartridge, whether blanks or otherwise, except legally licensed hunters.”
It goes on to spell out parameters for those hunters.
In Milford, Mayor Ben Blake said there is a local ban on firearms in parks, beaches and schools, but not town-owned buildings.
Firearms are already banned in schools everywhere in Connecticut, per state law.
In New Haven, there is no local ordinance at all regarding firearms. City spokesman Laurence Grotheer said in an email, “According to the city’s Office of Corporation Counsel, state law governs the legal possession and discharge of guns in New Haven … there are no city ordinances to complement, supersede, or supplant state law.”
Like Wilson, National Rifle Association spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen maintains “gun free zones” don’t work.
“Law-abiding citizens are sitting ducks for criminals who ignore the laws,” Mortensen said.
But Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning, said that’s not what the data shows.
Connecticut has some of the country’s toughest gun laws. Everyone needs a permit to carry and to buy a firearm or ammunition in the state and that involves undergoing a background check and six hours of training, Lawlor said.
Lawlor said in the last three years, since state gun laws were tightened in 2013, Connecticut has seen the biggest reduction in reported violent crimes of any state, according to FBI statistics.
“We have very tight gun laws. Law-abiding citizens can get a gun,” Lawlor said. “We have one of the lowest murder and violent crime rates in the country.”
Lawlor said it is up to property owners, including homeowners, whether to allow guns on their property and the Woodbridge regulation is “reasonable.”
He said without a local regulation, a registered gun owner with a permit could be handling a gun only feet from a bunch of kids playing and the police would have no grounds to question him.
The same would be true if a suspicious person with a gun were to enter Town Hall. Now, if police see someone with a gun they can ask, “What are you doing?” and the person can be charged with trespassing.
Penalty for violation of the local law carries a fine of up to $500, said Woodbridge Police Chief Frank Cappiello, who said he’s “fully supportive” of the revised ordinance. He said it will enhance public safety “throughout our community.”
While the local law sets a fine of up to $500, anyone violating it could also face stiffer penalties, including jail, Lawlor said, because the state has a law against carrying handguns where prohibited, and a violation is punishable by a fine of up to $500, imprisonment for up to three years, or both, and forfeiture of any handgun found in the violator’s possession, Lawlor said.
John DeCarlo, associate professor of criminal justice at University of New Haven and a retired police chief, said because this is a federalized democracy, states can’t dispute the constitutional right to own and bear arms in keeping with the Second Amendment, but part of the “responsibility of government is to regulate them.”
DeCarlo said he recalls as a police chief getting phone calls from residents about a guy in a supermarket with a gun. While unnerving, he said, without that supermarket having a rule posted against such carry, it was legal.
A WIDE ISSUE
Asked whether Woodbridge’s new ordinance could prevent a mass shooting, DeCarlo said, “Maybe it will.”
DeCarlo said in the case of Woodbridge, “I think this is more of a political statement or consensus by political leaders rather than a reaction to a threat … It’s based on ideology.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said communities like Woodbridge should be “commended” for taking “sensible, basic measures to protect residents,” but that local laws are “no replacement for federal action — the spread of lethal and illegal guns respects no state or local borders.”
“It is time for Congress to listen to the will of the American people and approve common-sense gun safety legislation, approve universal background checks, tougher penalties against gun trafficking, limits on military-style ammunition and other sensible measures,” Blumenthal said.
Scalettar said the idea of revisiting and revising the town’s firearms ordinance arose in recent years after it was brought to her attention that a section was not in compliance with state law.
Woodbridge’s original ordinance had prohibited discharging a weapon within 500 yards of a dwelling, but state law requires that be 500 feet. That has been changed.
Scalettar said revising the local law had been put on the back burner, but was brought to the forefront after she was contacted by Molot, an educator at Beecher Road School and mother who had always been for tighter gun control. It went into high gear with her advocacy after the Newtown shootings.
“As a mother, as a teacher, I was extremely affected by Newtown,” Molot said.
In addition to changing the footage cited in the ordinance to comply with state law, they worked on the ban in town buildings and on town property.
“I personally feel anytime anyone is carrying a loaded weapon, it’s the potential for a tragedy,” Molot said. “None of these laws are going to stop a person intent on shooting people.”
Scalletar said tightening the gun law was important to her all along, as she was policy director for Senate Democrats when the shootings took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Twenty first-graders and six adults were killed by a gunman.
“A municipality cannot regulate the gun industry like the federal or state government can; we cannot require mental health background checks or prohibit those on the no-fly list from buying guns. What we can do is regulate where those guns are carried and used in our town,” Scalettar said.
She and Scalettar met to discuss the topic, and Molot found Tracey, who offered to work pro bono. After several meetings, the new rule was drafted.
The ordinance was brought to public hearing recently, where it received support of residents and was approved by the Board of Selectmen. There are two exemptions for carrying guns on town-owned property: for law enforcement personnel and for the lawful transport of weapons on town roads.
Scalettar said the ordinance change is “in keeping with what Woodbridge residents expect.”
A town press release after approval of the new ordinance said: “The Woodbridge Board of Selectmen approved a change to the Town’s firearms ordinance on the same day that a member of Congress and four others were shot while at a baseball practice and a year and a day after the country’s deadliest mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub.”
The release also makes reference to Newtown.
Wilson, the CCDL president, said he disagrees on the reasoning behind the new local law and that “gun-free” zones make the public vulnerable.
In the case of the Newtown shootings, Wilson said, the outcome might have been different if the principal had a gun when she confronted shooter Adam Lanza.
Mortensen, of the NRA, said Americans are carrying firearms “in record numbers because they know that law enforcement cannot always be there to protect them.”
“Law-abiding citizens should have the right to exercise their constitutional right to self-protection wherever they maybe,” she said.
Molot said she’s “disappointed and disgruntled” with how gun control has been handled at the federal level. She helped in the post-Newtown struggle to try to get federal legislation passed.
But having Woodbridge residents embrace the concept and action made her feel “empowered,” and “it was satisfying to see that happening,” Molot said.
Tracey said the municipal firearm restrictions must conform to both Second Amendment and federal and state law requirements and “Woodbridge’s new ordinance clearly does.”
He said the firm does more than 80,000 hours per year of free work for thousands of clients and he personally does about 300 hours per year, as is “part of the culture of the firm.”
As for the Woodbridge case, he said, “I am also personally committed to promoting reasonable firearms control.”