New Gun Law Poses New Questions About Those Who Break It

Feb 24, 2014

Joel Cramer.
Credit Jeff Cohen / WNPR

It appears thousands of Connecticut residents may have failed to comply with the state's new gun registration law. The state banned the sale of certain so-called assault weapons after the Newtown shootings, and created a registry for residents who already own them.

Failure to register is a felony, but officials have no way to identify the new group of criminals, and no plans to round them up.

"I sold assault weapons up until the moment they said I couldn't sell them anymore."
Joel Cramer

Joel Cramer sells guns, and he's surrounded by his inventory on the exhibition floor of the Northeast Fishing and Show in Hartford.

"That's a suppressed .44 magnum rifle," Cramer said.

A customer asked, "What's this -- a model 700?"

"Yeah, that's a model 700," Cramer said. He specializes in guns like that rifle, machine guns, silencers, and very short shotguns. But one thing he can't sell anymore is what the state calls an assault weapon.

"I sold assault weapons up until the moment they said I couldn't sell them anymore," Cramer said. "It's a big part of the business. It's the gun that everybody wants."

It's also the type of gun that Adam Lanza used to kill 20 children and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Now it, and other guns like it, are banned. If you already own one, you can keep it, provided you registered it with the state before January 1.

Don't comply, and you could face a hefty fine and jail time. A similar provision is in place for people who possess high-capacity magazines; those are the boxes that supply bullets to a gun.

Cramer said the new law is a bureaucratic exercise meant to frustrate people who shoot for fun. He said it won't prevent future mass shootings. Still, he registered his guns, because not doing so is too risky. You could lose your right to vote, and lose your right to have any guns at all.

"And a lot of us, we like to shoot," Cramer said. "Not registering my gun means I can't take it out of the house. If I can't take it out of the house, then I can't shoot it. I've got a $600 toy sitting in the closet doing nothing. What good does that do anybody?"

Lawlor said the state isn't going to go around searching for people who've broken the law.

But as pointless as the new gun law seems to Cramer, it makes perfect sense to Mike Lawlor, the governor's undersecretary for criminal justice and policy planning. He said these guns are banned with good reason.

Mike Lawlor in a file photo.
Credit WNPR

"These are weapons," Lawlor said, "that are specifically designed to kill a lot of people very quickly and very accurately." He said that about 50,000 guns were registered with the state before last year's deadline, but admitted that Connecticut doesn't know how many illegal guns are still out there.

"We don't know any more than we know how many people in the state right now possess illegal drugs," Lawlor said. "All we know is that if you get caught with it, you're in a lot of trouble."

Lawlor said the state isn't going to go around searching for people who've broken the law, and that otherwise law-abiding citizens probably wouldn't get convicted of a felony the first time around. The goal of the law wasn't to have a complete assault weapons registry.

"The goal of the law," Lawlor said, "was to have fewer of these weapons in circulation. That's definitely going to be the case over time. You can't buy them or sell them legally in Connecticut anymore." 

None of that comes as any solace to Robert Crook, who runs the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen. He spent much of last year at the State Capitol advocating against the new gun laws.

"They shouldn't be going after legitimate gun owners," Crook said. "They should be going after criminals, and people robbing banks, and so forth. We're criminals based upon an act of legislature, which accomplishes nothing."

That Democratically-controlled legislature has just gotten to work for the year. While some have called for an amnesty period for those who failed to register their guns, others said it's unlikely lawmakers will reopen one of Connecticut's most contentious political battles in an election year.