WEST HARTFORD — Hoping to re-energize pro-gun safety efforts on Capitol Hill, President Obama visited Connecticut on Monday, using this state's sweeping new reforms as a catalyst.
The president told an audience of thousands that packed the University of Hartford’s Sports Center that gun safety advocates must speak loudly — and immediately — if substantive federal legislation is to have any chance.
“Now is the time to get engaged, to get involved, to push back on fear, frustration, and misinformation,” President Obama told an audience that included 1,500 students and hundreds of others including Gov Dannel P. Malloy, dozens of state legislators. “Now is the time to make your voice heard from every state house to the corridors of Congress.”
Hoping to keep the pressure on opponents of gun safety measures, Obama also used his 27-minute address to warn advocates that “political stunts” likely have been planned to block any vote and spare congressmen from having to go on record on the issue.
“Think about that,” he said. “They’re not just saying they'll vote ‘No’ on ideas that almost all Americans support. They’re saying they won't allow any votes on them at all. They're saying your opinion doesn't matter. And that’s not right.”
“Now they're going to deny those families — your families — a vote when the cameras are off and they think no one’s looking?” the president added. “You deserve better. You deserve a vote.”
Though gun-control measures advanced recently in Connecticut, Colorado and Maryland, efforts have bogged down on Capitol Hill.
Attempts to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines through federal regulation were abandoned by Democratic leaders in Congress who realized they could not secure support for those measures in the Democratic-controlled Senate, much less in the GOP-held House.
“Look, we knew from the beginning of this debate that change wouldn’t be easy,” President Obama said. “We knew there are powerful interests that are very good at changing the subject, at amplifying conflict and extremes over common ground, at drowning out rational debate by ginning up irrational fear. That’s what too often stands in the way of progress.”
The gun-control package before Congress would expand FBI background checks of gun buyers and increase federal penalties for gun trafficking and so-called “straw purchases” — buying a gun for a felon or anyone else prohibited by law from owning one.
Still, gun control advocates say the overall federal package is bare-boned and needs to be stronger, because tough laws at the state level aren't sufficient. Gun buyers can easily avoid one state's restrictions by shopping in another with weaker laws.
The president specifically called for advocates to demand “a background check for anyone who wants to try and buy a gun.”
He also called for tougher controls on gun trafficking -- particularly on the sale of military-style assault weapons -- and increased school safety standards.
“All of these are common sense,” Obama said. “They deserve a vote.”
The audience responded with chants of “We want a vote.”
The president, who met with relatives and friends of the Newtown shooting victims prior to his public speech, assured them during his address that their tragedy has not, and would not, be forgotten.
“Many of you in Newtown wondered if the rest of us would live up to the promises we made in those dark days — if we’d change, too; or if, once the television trucks left, once the candles flickered out, once the teddy bears were gathered up -- your country would move on to other things,” he said.
“Newtown, we want you to know that we’re here with you," Obama said. "We will not walk away from the promises we’ve made. We are as determined as ever to do what must be done. ... We’ve got to believe, every once in a while, we set politics aside. And we do what’s right.”
The measure Connecticut lawmakers enacted earlier this month in response to the December 14 shooting deaths of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown creates the nation's first gun-offender registry.
It also requires universal background checks for all gun purchases and bans the sale of military-style firearms and large-capacity magazines.
Connecticut's statute is “not a cure-all,” said Governor Malloy, who addressed the crowd shortly before Obama. “But we do know it will be of assistance in preventing future death in the state of Connecticut.”
The governor also predicted the measure enacted here last week “marks a turning point in the national debate” on gun control, and will show other states that realistic reform is possible.
The president added that he wouldn't allow the gun safety debate to turn into a partisan battle over his own political legacy.
“This isn't about me,” he said. “And it shouldn't be about politics. This is about doing the right thing for families like yours that have been torn apart by gun violence, and families going forward.”
Monday's event drew supporters from both sides of the gun control debate.
Craig Bentley, 21, a Waterford resident and senior business major at the university donned a bright yellow jacket with the Gadsden flag symbol -- coiled rattlesnake over the message “Don’t Tread on Me” — on the back.
“The flag is a symbol of freedom,” said Bentley, who wore a white T-shirt with an AR-15 assault rifle depicted on the front above the message “I plead the 2nd.”
Though the new Connecticut statute likely is headed for several legal challenges, advocates have said the AR-15 rifle, which is manufactured in Connecticut by Colt's, O.F. Mossberg and Stag Arms, is one of those that likely would be banned from retail sale if the legislation were upheld.
“I wanted to come here in a very civil and respectful way and share my views,” Bentley said, adding that he believes state lawmakers should have focused more on those who commit crimes than on law-abiding gun owners. “It’s about people control, not gun control,” he added.
Two Fairfield mothers who spearheaded a march for gun safety that brought more than 5,000 people to the state Capitol for a Valentine’s Day rally said they were hopeful the president's address would lead to change in more states.
The president “will hopefully inspire other states to act with the same courage” as Connecticut legislators did, said Nancy Lefkowitz, one of the co-founders of March for Change 2013.
“Connecticut needs to be a template for every other state,” added Meg Staunton, the other co-founder.
(This report originally appeared at CTMirror.org, the website of The Connecticut Mirror, an independent, non-profit news organization covering government, politics, and public policy in the state. Staff Writer Ana Radelat contributed to this article.)