April 28, 2014 10:44AM
By Jesse Buchanan
State police are still wading through the 50,000 assault weapon and high-capacity magazine applications received last year prior to a Jan. 1 deadline. Current owners were required to register their weapons under state legislation passed in the wake of the Newtown massacre.
While gun owners who didn’t register could face a Class D felony conviction carrying a maximum of five years in prison, state police spokesman Lt. Paul Vance said there are no plans for enforcing the law right now.
“We’re still in the processing stage,” he said. “We have no plans over and above that.”
Vance said he doesn’t know whether the 50,000 applications represent that number of gun owners or weapons themselves and didn’t have any estimates on how many assault weapons authorities believe are actually in the state. There haven’t been any prosecutions under the new law, Vance said.
Assault weapons, such as AR-15-style rifles with features deemed military, were banned in 1994. Since then a number of new models have been introduced that skirted the ban by eliminating certain military features, such as a bayonet mount.
Laws passed late last year after the Newtown shooting banned the sale of those rifles as well by reducing the number of features needed to define a weapon as an assault rifle. Existing gun owners were required to register them with the state, along with magazines holding more than 10 rounds, or get rid of them.
Estimates on how many gun owners avoided registration vary depending on the source. Gun rights advocates claim that tens and even hundreds of thousands have refused to register, while gun control groups say those numbers are inflated.
Craig Fishbein, a Wallingford Town Council Republican and member of the state’s Board of Firearms Permit Examiners, said an accurate count would be nearly impossible. Residents who moved in from other states could have brought guns with them before registration was required, he said, and others have had their guns taken away.
Fishbein criticized the new gun law calling it ridiculous but said he had registered.
“I spent a lot of time in the month of December helping people register their firearms,” he said. “I don’t support anyone not complying with the law.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation based in Newtown estimates there are between 300,000 and 350,000 rifles in the state that are now considered assault weapons. Jake McGuigan, director of state affairs for the foundation, said that number was conservative and based only on estimates of retail sales. Prior to the gun law passed last year, Connecticut residents could buy rifles and shotguns out of state and those sales wouldn’t be recorded by state gun sellers.
McGuigan said there’s been an increase since 2008 in the sale of modern sporting rifles, the industry’s term for guns such as those based on the AR-15. From January to November of 2013 alone, there were 250,000 background checks, each one indicating a gun sale or attempted gun sale. McGuigan said between 20 and 25 percent of all gun sales in recent years have been modern sporting rifles.
He’s not sure if the discrepancy between estimated guns in the state and those registered was an indication of civil disobedience or just ignorance of the new requirements.
“There are a lot of individuals who just don’t know,” he said.
Two gun owners who attended a recent rally at the state Capitol told the Record-Journal they were defying the law based on Second Amendment grounds. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to the potential for prosecution. One of the gun owners said he had never registered his Colt AR-15 bought in the 1980s as required under the 1994 gun ban. Since then he’s bought more AR-15-style rifles, he said, along with an AK-47 pattern weapon. The guns are hidden off his property and will remain so until he needs them, he said.
Connecticut has about 200,000 pistol permit holders, according to McGuigan. The new law required a permit to own a handgun or long gun, while previously a permit was only needed for a handgun.
Ron Pinciaro, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, defended the gun ban and said it was properly passed by the legislature, signed by the governor and upheld by the State Supreme court against a challenge.
“All three branches of our government looked at it,” Pinciaro said. “The process worked as it’s supposed to.”
He said he doubted the estimates of those refusing to register and believes the actual number to be less than 50,000.
“The opposition is trying to make a very determined attempt to show that this isn’t a good law,” Pinciaro said.
Those who don’t register their weapons do so “at their own peril” he said. Pinciario said he expects state and local police to enforce the new laws as any other laws. Unregistered weapons might be found in the course of investigating domestic abuse cases or on motor vehicle stops, Pinciaro said. Given limited police resources, a massive effort to find those who haven’t registered isn’t realistic.
“I don’t expect them to go door-to-door,” he said.
George Mocsary, assistant law professor at the Southern Illinois University and former visiting assistant professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, agreed that police aren’t likely to aggressively enforce the new gun law or search homes for illegal firearms.
“That kind of thing wouldn’t fly in America,” Mocsary said. “Everyone would find door-to-door searches for guns unacceptable.”
He expects that more than 90 percent of gun owners aren’t complying with the new law based on his research of gun registrations in other areas of the country. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated there were two million illegal guns in New York City. A requirement to register in 2011 brought only 93,000 firearms onto the books.
Mocsary cited a number of reasons why some gun owners won’t register, such as a suspicion that the registration is just the precursor to confiscation of guns. He said some gun owners see a need for guns when police aren’t able to protect them such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and during the Los Angeles riots.
And since registration has preceded confiscation in New Orleans after Katrina, Mocsary said there’s basis to the fear that once guns are in a registry they’re in danger of being taken.
American history, which started with an uprising against government, also plays a role. There’s no disagreement among Supreme Court justices that the 2nd Amendment was originally included in the Constitution as a check on tyranny, Mocsary said, although the current debate is over whether that purpose is still relevant.
“Americans have a lot of ingrained reasons to defy registration,” he said.
State Rep. Mary Mushinksy, D-Wallingford, supports the law and said it was well-publicized that those with assault weapons and magazines holding more than 10 rounds had to register.
There was never any intention to go to homes and check that registration had occurred, though.
“Folks are expected to comply and they’re able to keep their guns,” she said.
Illegal guns might come to light in the course of other police business. Mushinsky said she’s not aware of any plans in the legislature to further enforce the law.
State Rep. Rob Sampson, R-Southington, opposed the law but urges other gun owners to comply. He said he believes the law is unconstitutional and that it will be overturned by the Supreme Court.
“It did pass our legislature, it is the law of the land,” he said.
Searching homes for guns would be a “provocative” situation, Sampson said, and he’s glad there are no plans for aggressive enforcement. He’s also concerned about casual gun owners who don’t follow the news and don’t think their handgun with a 13-round magazine needs any sort of permit.
“He’s probably not thinking he’s part of this bill,” Sampson said.