At a quarter to noon on April 5, 2014, John Lennon’s voice rang out on the loudspeakers over the north lawn of the Connecticut State Capitol building, melodically chanting “Sun, sun, sun, here it comes.”
Though the Beatles had recorded “Here Comes the Sun” 45 years ago, the song bore an uncanny relevance to the Connecticut Citizens Defense League (CCDL) and its 3,000 gun rights supporters and allies who had congregated in Hartford to rally against Connecticut’s gun regulations. The words reflected the hopefulness in the air that these laws would be quickly overturned. Advocates had joined together in what had the look and feel of a conservative carnival. Schoolchildren and senior citizens alike waved picket signs and outdated American flags with fewer than fifty stars. Attendees gleefully gawked as one protester in a jumbo high capacity magazine costume strolled up and down the knoll leading to the capitol, while another donned a Barack Obama mask and bright orange prison jumpsuit. Toddlers scurried through the crowd, weaving among men who resembled poor imitations of Rambo or G.I. Joe — pistols, shotguns, rifles, and extra ammunition draped across their torsos.
The activists, hailing from Mississippi, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and a host of other states, had traveled to Hartford to rally against S.B. 1160, the Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety. Governor Dannel Malloy had signed this legislation exactly one year earlier, following the Sandy Hook shootings. The Act, among other provisions, requires universal background checks and bans military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines of over ten rounds; it effectively makes Connecticut’s gun laws some of the strongest in the country, second only to California, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
The participants’ excited chatter soon died down as someone toward the outermost edge of the lawn roared, “Ten Hut!” Heads turned to see a procession of flags with cross-shaped finials make its way up the capitol steps, where organizers had set up a podium. One of the men from this cortége seized the microphone and led the crowd in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, which supporters punctuated at the end with a hearty “Amen!” And after a subsequent rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” the crowd joined together in saying the U.S. Uniformed Services Oath of Office: I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; pledging my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor. So help me God.
With that weighty mission statement, the participants settled in for a three-hour series of speeches mobilizing citizens to repeal S.B. 1160 in any way possible, either through civil disobedience, voting in new legislators, or appealing it in the courts.
Many of the protesters here are guilty of a Class D felony, the same crime committed by Connecticut’s armed burglars and pimps. S.B. 1160 grandfathered in pre-existing assault weapon and high capacity magazine owners, but it still requires them to register these magazines with the state. While around 50,000 owners have filed the appropriate documents, The Hartford Courant estimates that as many as 350,000 have failed to meet the January 1 deadline to do so. No one knows the exact number for sure. Even murkier is whether most of these people were simply unaware of the law in time for the deadline, or whether they are purposefully neglecting to register in an act of mass civil disobedience.
Mike Vanderboegh proves that at least some people intentionally flout the law. Vanderboegh, author of the popular pro-gun Sipsey Street Irregulars blog, told The Politic in an email, “My friends and I have smuggled over two hundred 20 and 30 round magazines to Connecticut citizens in defiance of the law.” He added that he had sent some of this contraband to several pro-regulation government officials, including Governor Malloy, during Christmastime, a self-proclaimed act of peaceful resistance currently the subject of an investigation by the Connecticut state police.
This notion of civil disobedience was a prevalent motif in the rally’s speeches, though it was unclear just how strictly the protestors would abide by the method’s pacifist roots. In emphasizing solidarity with those who are standing up to the law, speakers seemed to foretell a possible battle ahead. The Connecticut liaison of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Anna Kopperud, warned her audience, “Governor Malloy can force you to go down to your local city precinct with your guns and force you to turn them in. Or they can go door to door and confiscate your guns.” The crowd, restless and armed, jeered back: “They can try!” “Out of my cold dead hands!” “Bullets first!” Another speaker, former state legislator and Connecticut selectman Doug Cutler, advised protesters, “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they [the state government] mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
The brouhaha over noncompliance poses a conundrum for the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection (DESPP), which must determine how exactly to enforce S.B. 1160. Though it is impossible to identify all of the individuals refusing to respect the law, police do record all the assault weapon and high-ammunition purchases within the state. By checking this list against the list of gun owners who have registered, they can compile an incomplete record of those who are violating the regulations. Yet even for gun control activists, the idea of going door to door to confiscate guns smacks of George Orwell. Connecticut State Police Chief Dora Schriro has said that there are no confiscation plans, and CCDL President Scott Wilson told The Politic, “I don’t think that [door-to-door confiscations] will happen any time in the foreseeable future.” Some have suggested that police may just have this information at hand when visiting a residence for an unrelated reason, such as a domestic disturbance. It remains to be seen whether this will be a sufficient enforcement mechanism.
As the rally raged on in Hartford, the gun control movement launched its counteroffensive. At exactly 12:00 PM, over 1,000 Facebook and Twitter accounts simultaneously posted the message, “We support the CT gun safety legislation and we thank those legislators who stood with us by voting yes.” The mass message, known as a “Thunderclap” — a crowd-speaking platform for social media — reached over 2.2 million people according to website’s bots, including many Connecticut state legislators. This was the start of the Connecticut Against Gun Violence (CAGV) campaign to reassure lawmakers that voters would reward, not punish, them in next November’s elections for voting to pass the gun safety act. Weeks earlier, the gun rights movement had intercepted these plans and, in an increasingly complex game of one-upmanship, set up their own opposing Thunderclap with the message, “Repeal the 2013 Connecticut Gun Ban. Send those who voted for it home.” (This message reached some 900,000 people, less than half of CAGV’s social radius.)
David Codrea, writer for GUNS Magazine, addressed this imbalance in his keynote speech midway through the rally. Though his visage was pale and voice weak from the ravages of a near-fatal battle with pneumonia, his message was no less impassioned. “If a lot more gun owners don’t get involved, perhaps the bold chat room warriors…will get the chance to demonstrate to their brethren here in Connecticut how much better they’ll perform when it’s their turn to show the stuff they’re made of.”
For Codrea, this cyber tussle illustrated the Second Amendment movement’s inadequacy in the technological realm. “What I’ve found out is that a lot of gun owners are kind of old-fashioned when it comes to social media,” he later told The Politic. Though leaders of the gun rights movement see social media playing a critical role in attracting supporters and influencing elected officials, the culture of sharing personal information online is generally antithetical to the high premium that most gun owners place on privacy. And while stereotypically younger liberals already spend time on social media platforms for pure entertainment value, gung-ho gun enthusiasts might not be the sort of demographic who enjoy, as Codrea put it, “playing Bubble Safari and sharing pictures of kitties.”
Nevertheless, this is only the tip of the iceberg for the post-Newtown challenges that gun groups now encounter in drumming up popular support for next November’s elections. A patchwork of survey results indicates that the vast majority of Connecticut residents support the new gun laws and would like to further expand them. The Quinnipiac Polling Institute perhaps most notably reported that 93 percent support universal background checks. And while Wilson suggested to The Politic that “a lot of the polls are asked in ways that are not necessarily objective,” public opinion is clearly on the side of tough regulations.
This is actually not all that different from the pre-Newtown situation; the left-leaning Connecticut population has usually felt uncomfortable with viewing the Second Amendment as an unfettered absolute. However, as any community organizer knows, public support does not always translate into action. In the decades that preceded the Sandy Hook shooting, the gun control movement struggled with the a phenomenon called the “passion gap.” CAGV President Ron Pinciaro told The Politic, “The passion gap had existed in the industry forever. The conventional thinking was always that the passion has always been on the gun rights side of this issue.” Because guns tended to play a larger defining role in a gun-owner’s identity than they did for the average citizens who supported gun regulations in theory, this fervid minority of gun rights activists often overpowered the tepid convictions of the pro-regulation majority. While over a half-dozen Connecticut firearms groups had been operating long before last year’s shootings, Pinciaro pointed out, “We [CAGV] were certainly the only statewide gun-violence prevention group [in CT], and have been for over twenty years.”
Everything changed as news started trickling in from Newtown about the violent deaths of twenty children in December 2012. The speechless shock that gripped the state did not last long, and citizens began pushing their community organizations to get involved, or banding together to form gun control groups of their own. As Pinciaro put it, “The [passion] gap closed spontaneously by itself.”
Legislators felt equally motivated to pass new laws, and they called on these new crusaders for suggestions by holding hearings for anyone who wanted to testify. Activists jumped at the chance as new gun control groups, local political committees, and interfaith groups lined up at the state capitol. Alison Rivard of the League of Women Voters recalled, “I went up there [Hartford] in January and stood in the snow for an hour and a half trying to get into the building to testify in person. There were thousands of people there, and I found that I had drawn number 1,100 or 1,200.” After a few months of translating these testimonies into a bill and wrangling a tenuous bipartisan alliance, the state legislature passed what is now S.B. 1160, the Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety.
Pro-gun control groups in Connecticut express varying degrees of optimism over whether these legislators will face consequences for their support of S.B. 1160 during next November’s elections. The old wound that is the passion gap may reopen, primarily because the state’s established gun rights groups have more infrastructure and lobbyist know-how than the relatively young gun control coalition. Of particular concern are the robust ties that many Connecticut gun rights groups have with national organizations, such as the NRA. Rivard told The Politic, “Some of the legislators [who supported S.B. 1160] this year, when they’re up for reelection, are going to face money coming in from out of state under our unduly flexible independent expenditure provision, which allows outside [national] groups to pour unlimited amounts of money in to defeat local candidates for state office.” Because of the lax campaign finance regulations that resulted from Citizens United v. FEC, allowing organizations to anonymously donate money to campaigns, Rivard is particularly concerned that voters will not realize that certain candidates receive financial support from Second Amendment groups and thus unintentionally vote in a well-funded pro-gun legislator based on issues other than the gun debate.
CAGV is out to prove, though, that two can play at this campaign finance game by creating their own super PAC. Po Murray, Vice Chairman of CAGV’s partner, The Newtown Action Alliance, told The Politic, “There is merit following the strategy that has been employed by the well-oiled machine that is the corporate gun lobby.” This effort seeks to hold up a mirror to Connecticut’s gun rights groups, which are now arguing that out-of-state liberal magnates such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and billionaire financier George Soros will likely provide campaign funds under the veil of anonymity. Regardless, it is doubtless that millions of dollars worth of gun-related advertising will soon be coming to a television near you.
Two men carrying a large plastic tub shaped like a pickle jar combed the lawn. As they walked through the crowd, protesters plunged their hands into their pockets to fetch cash — often twenty and fifty dollar bills. The donors, oddly enough, knew that this money was going toward a losing lawsuit. Brian Stapleton, lead attorney for the suit against S.B. 1160, told the audience, “To be real honest, I don’t think we’re going to get a very nice reception in the Second Circuit, because the Second Circuit is filled with people just like Governor Malloy…People that don’t understand you and are against your rights.”
CCDL began organizing plaintiffs and recruiting attorneys within days of the 2013 Act’s passage. Nevertheless, Judge Alfred V. Covello for the District of Connecticut ruled that the state had a compelling interest to encumber the Second Amendment. Because CCDL’s case, Shew v. Malloy, seems likely to receive the same response in their appeal to the federal court, gun rights supporters hope that the case will go to the Supreme Court. Codrea told The Politic, “Right now, we have a five-to-four Supreme Court…that is going to be nominally on the side of gun rights.” The Court’s previous decisions in D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, landmark cases that expanded the rights of gun-owners, demonstrate a tendency toward striking down gun control laws.
A Supreme Court ruling on the unconstitutionality of S.B. 1160 and laws like it may be a panacea for the Second Amendment movement’s national battle, given the gun control group’s strategy of getting a “critical mass” of states to pass similar laws — or in other words, enough to support a federal law. Said Murray, “You’ve seen the movement with the LGBTQ community… Many of the states are moving toward the direction of their advocacy, and eventually there will be changes federally. We believe that [gun laws] will be the same.” A Congressional bill is the endgame for the Connecticut gun control movement since many state-level laws are unenforceable without federal backing.
John Perloe, leader of the Greenwich Council Against Gun Violence, told The Politic, “Someone can buy a legal gun in Virginia and bring it on up to Connecticut.” Though smuggling high capacity magazines and assault weapons into the state is a Class C felony, it is not uncommon. So while the Connecticut gun control movement has been reaching out to other states to provide a roadmap for stronger regulations, Connecticut gun rights groups hope that a Supreme Court ruling will stop this state-by-state battle in its tracks.
Connecticut has become both an exemplar for states seeking to tighten their gun laws and a cautionary tale for those that want to loosen them. “Connecticut set the model for what states should do to prevent gun violence,” said Perloe. Meanwhile, CCDL President Scott Wilson warned, “I try to remind everybody, especially when I speak at any meeting out of state, that what happened here in Connecticut can happen anywhere. I do believe that any state is likely one type of Sandy Hook tragedy away from going through what we are going through now.”
Connecticut will likely continue playing this role, as S.B. 1160 now seems snug in the state’s legislative code. Only a Supreme Court ruling or an upset election has any chance of unmooring it. For the time being, “Here Comes the Sun” was likely too optimistic a Beatles song for the rally. If I were a gun owner, I would have chosen one of their earlier tracks: “Help!”