HARTFORD, Conn. – A month after the Newtown school tragedy, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is moving cautiously on gun control in Connecticut, a relatively liberal Northeastern state that nevertheless has a strong gun culture and is home to some of the nation's best-known firearm makers.
Gun control advocates and their allies in the state General Assembly want to pass new restrictions on weapons while passions are still high over the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting rampage Dec. 14 that left 20 children and six women dead. But they are bracing for strong opposition.
Gun owners have packed statehouse hearings in recent years to oppose measures that would tighten the state's gun laws. And gun manufacturers such as Colt Manufacturing Co., which traces its history to a Hartford factory that Samuel Colt opened in 1855, have threatened in the past to leave Connecticut, taking hundreds of jobs with them, if certain requirements became law.
Malloy, a Democrat, became choked up when he mentioned Newtown in his State of the State Address on Wednesday, saying: "Let us do everything in our power to ensure that Connecticut never again suffers such a loss, that we take real steps to make our kids and our communities safer."
He offered no specific proposals, instead noting that an advisory panel he set up last week will issue recommendations in March on gun control, mental health treatment and other issues arising from the Newtown massacre.
Betty Gallo, a lobbyist for Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said the state has an opportunity to become a national model on gun control. She said she understands the governor is taking a comprehensive look at what could prevent another tragedy, but she and others worry about opposition.
"There are people who have gun manufacturers in their town who are truly worried about constituents' jobs," Gallo said. "We expect problems with retailers and manufacturers."
In addition to West Hartford-based Colt, Connecticut is home to the gun makers Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Mossberg & Sons. None of the companies responded to requests for comment.
Also, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association, is based in Newtown, only a few miles from the scene of the Sandy Hook shooting. A spokesman, Mike Bazinet, said it is taking part in the gun control dialogue led by Vice President Joe Biden but has not gotten involved on the state level.
"If we were asked to participate in any process that has as its goal the reduction of violence and the protection of our children, we as an industry would be pleased to take part in that process," Bazinet said.
Connecticut, whose legislature has long been controlled by Democrats, ranks among the states with the most stringent gun control laws, but proposals to make them stronger have run into strong resistance.
In 2009, a bill to require gun markings to make them easier to trace was dropped after Colt vice president Charlton Chen warned that the company would consider leaving if it became law. "Let us not make a mistake with the unintended consequences of driving businesses and jobs out of Connecticut," he said.
More recently, gun owners turned out in force at the Capitol last March to oppose legislation banning large-capacity ammunition magazines, such as those later used by gunman Adam Lanza in the Newtown massacre. The measure failed.
Robert Crook, executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, said he has 35,000 members who represent a small portion of the 180,000 people with pistol permits in the state. He said 350 of them were prepared to testify last year against the bill banning large-capacity magazines.
He said school security should be a bigger priority than gun control, noting that the Newtown shooting was carried by a troubled young man who took his mother's weapons and was not a gun owner himself. But Crook added: "We're open to any rational suggestions that make common sense."
State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, a Democrat and a longtime proponent of tougher gun laws, said he is hoping the political climate has changed since the tragedy.
"I'm hopeful that some people will recognize that not every gun regulation bill is a serious threat to the Second Amendment and that people will be a little more reasonable about accepting some reasonable regulation," he said.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., a Republican, said he expects lawmakers will find more common ground on the issue than people might expect.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo in neighboring New York is trying to put his state out front on gun control, coming out with a wide-ranging package of restrictions Wednesday in his State of the State Address.
He called for loopholes to be closed in a state ban on assault weapons and ammunition magazines that carry more than 10 bullets. The Democrat also wants to require holders of handgun licenses to undergo follow-ups to make sure they are still qualified to possess a weapon, and he is calling for increased sentences for certain gun crimes.