POLITICS
01/18/2013 07:44 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

Connecticut's Gun Violence Task Force Attracts Criticism From Gun-Rights Supporters

In Connecticut, the legislature's new gun-violence task force plans to put its recommended proposals to an early vote in February, while the state's pro-gun activists look on anxiously.

"As horrendous" as the Newtown shooting was, "it does not constitute a reason to hijack the legislative process," said Scott Wilson, the head of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, a group dedicated to defending Second Amendment rights.

Still, Connecticut gun-control advocates are hoping to take advantage of the current political climate, following the fatal shooting in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School and New York's passage this week of the most restrictive gun laws in the country.

"We're very interested in the lawmakers doing this in a very short period of time," said Betty Gallo, a lobbyist who represents the group Connecticut Against Gun Violence.

Gun supporters, meanwhile, sounded less than confident. "I will put it bluntly," said Wilson. "There are a lot of legislators who are typically Second Amendment-friendly who have their finger wet and are holding it up in the wind to see which way it's blowing. Hopefully, the indignation of lawful gun owners in the state calling them out will have some effect."

The legislative task force, which was assembled by leaders of both parties, met Friday for the first time and will hold a series of public hearings later this month. The three hearings will cover school safety, guns, and mental health issues, respectively. A fourth hearing will be Jan. 30 at Newtown High School.

Wilson is encouraging members of his organization to write letters and send checks, and march in a pro-gun rally scheduled for Saturday in Hartford, where he's expecting a big turnout. "Gun owners are very concerned about what's going on," he said, "and rightfully so."

He said that his group's membership has surged in recent months. But so have the ranks of his opponents.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Gallo. "Our website got 5,000 "likes" in the last two weeks. We produced a thousand letters last week to legislators. That's unheard of."

It's unclear how that support could affect Connecticut legislators' decisions, but at least one member of the committee already has run afoul of the National Rifle Association since the Newtown shooting.

Steve Dargan, a Democratic state representative, received a "C" from the NRA in 2006, a high grade for a Democrat in a state with some of the toughest gun-control laws in the country. "I was a middle-of-the-road kind of guy," he said.

Then this month he introduced a bill that would make people's permit records public. Weeks later, he still sounded taken aback by the deluge of angry phone calls from around the country.

The proposal "had nothing about taking away people's right to bear arms," he insisted. "My overall thought process was, 'Let's just have a discussion.'"

After the committee's meeting Friday afternoon, he defended the plan for an expedited legislative process. "We had the most horrific incident in our state history, probably," he said, "and for us not to take any action wouldn't be the right thing to do."

Earlier this week, the state's Senate Republican leader, John McKinney, who helped convene the task force, said: “I have had the privilege of representing Newtown, Connecticut in the state Senate for the past 14 years and the tragic events that occurred there on December 14 require a response from our government and our society at large. I am pleased that this task force is set up to work across party lines to make legislative recommendations based on facts and evidence in the areas of mental illness, school safety and gun control.”

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