Minutes after President Barak Obama gave a national address last week on gun control reform in the wake of the Newtown killings, the Law Tribune spoke with Michael Lawlor, one of the chief architects of Connecticut’s 1993 assault weapons ban.
These days, Lawlor is the top criminal justice policy executive in the administration of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Twenty years ago, Lawlor was a key Democratic lawmaker shepherding the controversial assault weapons bill through the House, with passionate debate lasting until dawn. A similar federal law passed in 1994, which also banned magazines holding more than 10 rounds. That law expired in 2004.
Lawlor, a former state prosecutor and, for 16 years, a co-chair of the legislative Judiciary Committee, predicts stronger state and federal laws to come. He even speculates that an increased focus on background checks could retroactively invalidate past firearm purchases.
Lawlor spoke with Senior Writer Thomas B. Scheffey.
LAW TRIBUNE: In Connecticut, is there anything new the executive branch will be doing?
MICHAEL LAWLOR: The governor’s formed a study commission, and apart from legislation that needs to be passed, there’s other administrative regulations and procedures that can be done without rewriting a statute or getting a budget application. We’re already in the process of doing those things. The level of attention being paid to gun sales [by local and state police] is much higher than it ever was before.
LAW TRIBUNE: I remember you championing the assault weapons bill before the House, until about four in the morning, back in 1993.
LAWLOR: I ended up in that role by default, after another legislator got sick. I had to study up on the bill and get out there and defend it all night. That was the last time there really was an all-out war between the [pro and anti-] gun control forces. After that, a lot of gun laws got passed in Connecticut.
LAW TRIBUNE: What’s the history of the state and federal assault weapons bans?
LAWLOR: There is no federal assault weapon ban right now. There is a 1993 state assault weapon ban that’s still on the books. The federal ban was enacted in 1994, but it had a sunset provision after ten years. Unlike the state ban, the federal one also contained a prohibition on magazines which had a capacity of more than ten rounds. That disappeared in 2004 with the whole law. Connecticut never had a ban on high-capacity magazines, mainly because the feds did it. After 2004, and for a long time after the federal ban expired, we were dealing with Governor John Rowland and Governor Jodi Rell, both of whom were [Republicans and were] relatively supportive of the National Rifle Association point of view. So it was impossible to get [magazine ban] through. Now we have a different governor, and a different imperative because of the Newtown shooting. My guess is you’ll see a change here.
LAW TRIBUNE: How effective was the state assault weapons ban?
LAWLOR: [In] a very deliberate way, manufacturers and retailers of these weapons have sought to bypass the assault weapons bill by making modifications. They’re selling weapons that by anyone’s standard would be an assault weapon. For example, the Bushmaster AR15, which was used in Newtown, is not actually covered by the ban. And the only reason it can be sold lawfully in Connecticut is because the manufacturers and retailers made certain modifications to it in order to bypass the Connecticut law, even though the functionality of the weapon is identical to what was actually banned. They’re deliberately getting around the spirit of the law, which they have a right to do. I’m just calling them out on that.
LAW TRIBUNE: Specifically, what did the gun manufacturers do?
LAWLOR: First, they changed the names and model numbers of the weapons to avoid the ban. The 1993 ban contained a list of assault weapons by name and model number, and that’s what was banned. The manufacturers said, `No problem, we’ll just sell it under a different name.’ That went on until 2001, when the legislature also defined an assault rifle as having one characteristic plus two of five other characteristics. All the manufacturers had to do was make sure it had one of the five, as opposed to two of the five characteristics.
The Bushmaster AR15, as sold in Connecticut, had one of the five characteristics — a pistol grip. They deliberately modified the gun offered for sale in Connecticut so it wouldn’t come under the ban. Still, the gun retained the capability that was the cause for concern in the first place, which was that you could put magazines in it holding 30 or 50 rounds.
LAW TRIBUNE: What’s in store legislatively, in your view?
LAWLOR: I think you’re going to see a state assault weapons ban that covers a lot more ground than the old ban did. It [will likely be] retroactive, and I think you’re going to see a dramatic expansion of the number of weapons that require a permit to purchase and possess. [There] seems there is a consensus forming around what types of guns should be banned, what types of magazines should be banned. [We'll have to determine] what parts should be retroactive, whether there should be background checks for every single firearms purchase, including all gun shows and all private sales for long guns and handguns. And a significant expansion of the permit requirement so that people who want to own handguns or military-style weapons will have to pass a background check, will have to have specialized training, and will have a license that can be revoked if they engage in reckless or irresponsible behavior.
LAW TRIBUNE: What’s your personal experience with guns?
LAWLOR: I’ve certainly fired quite a few guns, but I’ve never been a hunter or anything like that. In the Boy Scouts they took us target shooting, and I’ve fired assault weapons, just so I could see what it was like, at the state police rifle range.
LAW TRIBUNE: What was that like?
LAWLOR: It’s like you’ve seen on TV. It’s definitely fun. I can see why it’s fun for people. And it’s definitely dangerous. So danger and fun is a combination where you have to be really careful. You have the right to do it, but you have the responsibility to be cautious, and that’s all we’re really talking about. •