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Two years after Sandy Hook, how have gun laws changed?

December 14, 2014 at 11:00 AM EDT
In the two years since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the state of Connecticut adopted some of the most restrictive gun policies in the country, including a controversial law enacted last year to keep weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill. NewsHour's John Carlos Frey reports.
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NICOLE HOCKLEY: It started like any other normal day. Got the kids ready for school. Got Dylan to take his vitamins which he fought me on every morning. And and we went up the driveway to the bus. And that was last time I saw him alive.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Nicole Hockley’s six year-old son, Dylan, whose bright blue eyes and laugh filled a room, whose favorite foods were Hershey’s chocolate bars, red delicious apples, and garlic bread was one of 20 children and 6 adults who died in a hail of gun fire at Sandy Hook elementary school two years-ago today.

Dylan who was autistic, was found in the arms of his school aid, Anne Marie Murphy, who died trying to shield him.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: And in some respects, that makes so much sense, cause she wouldn’t have left him. So– so they died together.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: There’s a lot Nicole doesn’t remember from that horrible day. But she clearly recalls the man who gave her the news no parent wants to hear, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy. Malloy spoke in a back room of the firehouse where parents had gathered.

GOV. DAN MALLOY: I did say to the parents that they were– if they had not been united with their family already, then they were not going to be united with their family.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: And the room just erupted. And I’ll be honest, at that moment in time I hated him because that was who had told me.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: But since that day the two have become allies in the fight for new gun restrictions and regulations that would keep weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill. As the communications director for Sandy Hook Promise, an organization founded in the aftermath of the tragedy, Hockley advocated in Washington, D.C. for new legislation.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: I’m one of those people that I have to do something to stop it. Partly in honor of Dylan and to give him a legacy that he’ll never have. And partly just because I can’t let it be a senseless tragedy because it was a preventable tragedy.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: While federal legislation stalled in partisan gridlock, in April of 2013 Gov. Malloy signed into Connecticut law some of the most restrictive gun policies in the country. And while gun violence experts say it’s far too early to tell how effective the new law is, Governor Malloy points to the fact that there were 32% fewer murders in 2013 than 2011.

GOV. DAN MALLOY: We’ve seen a dramatic drop in murders in our state. We’ve denied people the ability to purchase weapons because they fell into a category such as a felony conviction or mental treatment.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: The new Connecticut law strengthened gun laws that were already on the books, making background checks universal for all gun and ammunition purchases and limiting the ability of the mentally ill to purchase guns. The new legislation outlawed more than 100 additional assault weapons, including the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle that Adam Lanza used to kill so many at Sandy Hook. Large capacity magazines holding more than 10 rounds were banned as well.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: This is a weapon that’s been banned in your state. It’s been determined to be an assault weapon. And obviously it was used in Sandy Hook. So we know that it killed quite a few people.

DOM BASILE: It didn’t kill 20 school children in Sandy Hook. Adam Lanza killed 20 school children in Sandy Hook.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: 53 year-old Dom Basile, an employee for the US Postal Service and a firearms instructor is a gun collector and owns many weapons that are now outlawed in the state. Basile legally purchased these guns before the ban went into effect, so is allowed to keep them.

DOM BASILE: Punishing me, and those like me, solely because we lawfully and responsibly possess the same type of property that he– that a criminal had, makes about as much logical sense as punishing you for owning the same type of car that a drunk driver had.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Basile is so frustrated about the new state law that he plans to move to Maine, where he owns property and plans to build his own gun range. An Basile is not alone. A statewide poll taken last May found that 38 percent of voters do not support the stricter gun regulations while 56 percent were in favor.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Banning semi-automatic weapons, assault weapons the size of the magazine would help to diminish mass shootings?

DR. DANIEL WEBSTER: It would certainly help to diminish the number of individuals shot in those shootings, yes.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Dr. Daniel Webster is the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, a group dedicated to reducing gun-related injuries and deaths. Webster says that the most important aspect of Connecticut’s new gun law, when it comes to mass shootings, is magazine capacity. Adam Lanza used a magazine with a capacity of 30 bullets.

DR. DANIEL WEBSTER: If you look at data from other mass shooting scenarios, there is a direct correlation between the ammunition capacity, how much ammunition an assailant has, and how many people get shot.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: State Representative Rob Sampson, a republican, has been one of the governor’s most vocal opponents in the state house on this issue. He was named a defender of freedom by the National Rifle Association and believes that magazine capacity had nothing to do with how many children were killed at Sandy Hook elementary school.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Arming yourself with a 30-bullet magazine would make it a lot easier to mow people down then a 10 bullet magazine.

REP. ROB SAMPSON: Well–

JOHN CARLOS FREY: It just, it just seems logical to me.

REP. ROB SAMPSON: Unfortunately, it’s not. You can change a magazine in literally one second.

If I was to shoot you and say, “I’m about to shoot you, and I have to change magazines first, boom, I’m done,” you’d never get to me in time. You wouldn’t even try. I do not believe it is enough time to rush an attacker, and certainly not in the case when you’re talking about second graders.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: Dylan was shot five times. So if we had a 10 magazine, 10 bullet limit, you know, instead of a 30, for all I know Dylan could be alive today. It’s just, it’s absurd for him to say that it wouldn’t have made a difference. Of course it would have made a difference.

And there have been far too many other shootings where a jam or a reload has given an opportunity for someone to intervene.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: In Dylan’s class five children were killed and 11 escaped. While the events of the day may never be fully clear some say that the children fled when Lanza’s gun either jammed or had to be reloaded.

We do know, however, that Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter who badly injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others near Tucson, AZ was subdued while he was reloading his gun.

State Rep. Sampson, however, is not persuaded by this argument and points out that a study on the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 found that the ban did not lower the number of gun deaths in the US. Dr. Daniel Webster AGREES that the ban did little to stem broader gun violence… but says that the study did not focus on mass shootings.

DR. DANIEL WEBSTER: It’s worth noting that when the ban expired in 2004, that following that, we– experienced a great increase in mass shootings and in particular the number of individuals who are shot in such shootings.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: In September the FBI released a study that supports Webster’s analysis. The FBI found that “active shooter incidents”, defined as an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined area, have gone up in the last seven years. From 2000 to 2007 there were an average of 6.4 incidents annually. From 2007 to 2013 that average jumped to 16.4 incidents a year.

Guns right’s advocates are not the only critics of the new Connecticut law. Dr. Sigurd Ackerman is the director of Silver Hill Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Connecticut. He’s concerned about a requirement in the law that says most patients who admit themselves for psychiatric treatment must be reported to the state.

If I come in because I’m bulimic or because I may be severely depressed from a breakup, I will have my gun rights taken away?

DR. SIGURD ACKERMAN: That’s correct.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Do you find that to be prudent?

DR. SIGURD ACKERMAN: Well, I find that to be potentially harmful. It will have the effect of discouraging many people from seeking treatment because they’ll be reported.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Dr. Ackerman says that the law was passed in a hurry and he believes that the law focuses on too broad a group, when it should be focused on those who actually pose a threat… like those with a history of violent behavior.

DR. SIGURD ACKERMAN: What I’m saying is that the people who are voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric facility are not those people. So they’ve got the wrong group.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: The law’s not going to catch possible mass murderers?

DR. SIG ACKERMAN: That’s correct.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Dr. Ackerman points out that Adam Lanza was not seeking treatment for mental illness, as a recently released report about Lanza’s life revealed, so he would not have ended up in a state database of those banned from owning a gun. But Governor Malloy says that the legislation has already worked.

GOV. DAN MALLOY: We actually were able to stop someone from buying a gun who advocated or said that they wanted to use that to shoot up another school.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: It’s the case of an 18-year-old woman with mental health issues who admitted herself to a group home for treatment. She attempted to purchase a gun but the governor’s office told NewsHour that she was prevented from doing so because her name was in the state database.

Upon investigation police found a manifesto about her plans to shoot students at two high schools.

Nicole Hockley, mother of Dylan, believes the steps Connecticut took have made her state safer but she continues to advocate for other states and the federal government to follow suit. It’s too easy, she says to simply drive across state lines and buy a gun in state with less strict gun regulations.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: It hurts me in my heart every day when there’s another mass shooting, seeing scenes of helicopter footage of children running from schools, it’s just– it’s becoming far to familiar a sight. This isn’t that isn’t the country that we’re meant to be. We’re better than this.

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