Council Votes To Research Open Carry Of Firearms On Town Property
After extensive and sometimes emotional discussion December 2, and reviewing the details of three firearms ordinances submitted for consideration by the Newtown Action Alliance (NAA), the Legislative Council voted to look more closely at just one of the proposals.
The decision to defer sending all three proposals to the council’s Ordinance Committee failed on a tie vote, after which Councilman Dan Honan offered a motion to send all three directly to the town’s law firm Cohen and Wolf for review, bypassing the committee altogether.
Honan said during nearly three hours of public comments and deliberation he heard attorneys’ opinions both pro and con, as well as advice about whether any or all three of the draft ordinances were even legal to implement locally under present state and federal laws. So he justified his motion saying he wanted the firm that employs Town Attorney David Grogins to review all three.
This brought an amendment from Councilman Chris Eide, who was more interested in reviewing one specific proposal that, if approved and initiated, would make it a violation to openly carry a firearm on town property.
Eide zeroed in on that ordinance proposal after learning a previous ordinance committee had already thoroughly researched aspects of the other two proposals in 2015, and were advised against trying to implement them for various legal reasons.
After further discussion, Eide’s amendment passed 9-3 and replaced Honan’s main motion. A subsequent vote on that main motion passed 7-5, leading Council Chairman Paul Lundquist to initiate the request for a legal review of the single question about whether the town could legally restrict open carry on town property.
The eventual decision falls in line with advice provided one day earlier to The Newtown Bee from a spokesperson at State Attorney General William Tong’s office, who said the question of how a local ordinance fits within state statute would be best addressed by local counsel.
Numerous local residents, including founders, members, and supporters of the NAA and its initiative, related stories of feeling intimidated at the thought of permitted individuals possibly carrying at local public demonstrations. Those opposing the ordinances, including a spokesperson for the Newtown-based National Sports Shooting Foundation (NSSF), referred to the proposals as unnecessary or constitutionally unenforceable.
The NAA website states the group welcomes advocates, along with families of victims and survivors of gun violence, who are working to transform the tragedy of 12/14 into meaningful action to end gun violence through the introduction of smarter, safer gun laws, and broader cultural change.
The draft document with ordinance language stated it was derived from similar ordinances, as well as proposed model laws.
On a question by Councilman Dan Wiedemann about how the issue ended up on the agenda, Lundquist said it was his decision. Responding to concerns from Councilman Phil Carroll about the timing of the referral being so close to the date of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, Lundquist said it was coincidental.
The council chair said the idea to request a package of proposed ordinances was floated to him two years ago by members of the NAA’s junior contingent. He said at the time he advised the group to find a way to get the town’s Police Commission to make the referral.
After a lengthy period of inaction, the group surfaced earlier this year requesting the Police Commission to do just that, but the panel said the NAA proponents should make their appeal directly to the council.
Saying he was “open to the idea from the beginning,” Lundquist only asked for the group to hold off on bringing the ordinance proposals forward until after Election Day, and this week was the first opportunity to put the request on the council’s agenda.
Consider Legislative Action
In the process of reviewing the draft language, both independently and with members of the Police Commission, Newtown Police Chief James Viadero told The Newtown Bee ahead of the meeting that a suggestion was made to pursue changes through statewide legislation versus at the local level.
Viadero said current statutes permit the town from limiting the open carrying of firearms in town buildings and on town properties, but he was not sure any of the collateral proposals were viable and he was awaiting the outcome of council action on the matter. He also mentioned the issue of enforceability, since any attempt to discern whether someone was in possession of a concealed firearm is not permissible under state law.
“My threshold is whether there is a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity,” Viadero said. “Right now, cops aren’t allowed to ask someone if they have a [firearms carry] permit.”
Knapp said based on the work the ordinance committee did when working up a 2015 firearms ordinance, he was unsure whether any of the suggested proposals would withstand a legal challenge, “as the state has taken sole authority over regulating this area and deciding who is and who isn’t permitted to carry in public spaces and how.”
During later discussion in the meeting, Knapp and several other more tenured council members said the question of viability regarding at least two of the current ordinance proposals had been asked and already answered by legal counsel when the town began researching and drafting its first firearms ordinance years ago.
While private entities can do as they please, Knapp said the state — having a process for permitting individuals following training and background checks to carry — likely preempts the new proposals.
The first of three proposed ordinances relates to possession of a firearm on town property. The draft language reads: “No person shall possess any firearm, air gun, air rifle, or crossbow, longbow or other weapon on any Town-owned property, except for federal, state or local law enforcement officers authorized to carry weapons or otherwise by authorization of the Board of Selectmen. This prohibition shall not apply to a person lawfully transporting any firearm, air gun, air rifle, or crossbow, longbow or other weapon in a vehicle.”
The second proposed ordinance relates to carrying firearms during public demonstrations. The draft states: “It shall be unlawful for any person, other than a law enforcement officer, to have in his or her possession or on his or her person or in any vehicle any firearm while participating in or attending any demonstration being held at a public place.”
A second part of the proposal states: “It shall be unlawful for any person, other than a law enforcement officer... to have in his or her possession or about his or her person or in any vehicle at a point within 1,000 feet of a demonstration at a public place, any firearm after having first been advised by a law enforcement officer that a demonstration was taking place at a public place and after having been ordered by such officer to remove himself or herself from the prescribed area until such time as he or she no longer was in possession of any firearm.”
Open Carry Question
That subsection would not apply to any person in possession of or having on his or her person any firearm within a private dwelling or other private building or structure.
The final item involves a proposed restriction on the open carry of firearms. The draft states:
(a) It shall be unlawful for any person to carry upon his or her person an exposed rifle or shotgun outside a vehicle while in the Town of Newtown.
(b) It shall be unlawful for any person to carry inside or on a vehicle an exposed rifle or shotgun while in the Town of Newtown...
(c) Exceptions to the prohibitions stated in Sections (a) and (b) above are as follows:
*By any duly appointed and acting federal, state, or municipal law enforcement officer, peace officer or investigating officer, or any military or militia personnel called out or directed by constituted authority to keep the law and order, or any park ranger while acting as such on the grounds of a public park and who is on regular duty, and any authorized messengers or bank guards when acting in the performance of their official authorized duties. Such term does not include a peace officer on strike or a peace officer not on duty.
*By the owner of land, or the tenant or authorized agent of the owner of land, while on the owner’s land.
*By a person legally authorized to hunt under the provisions of Connecticut General Statutes and the regulations issued here under, in such places and in such a manner as is set forth under such statutes and regulations; however, nothing herein authorizes hunting on any public beach, park or other land owned or leased by the Town of Newtown. Hunting is specifically prohibited on town-owned or leased property, except when authorized by the Board of Selectmen upon the recommendation of the Conservation Commission and subject to approval by the Police Chief to ensure that public safety concerns are met, for the control of wildlife that threatens public health or safety or when wildlife threatens the ecological integrity of Newtown’s natural resources.
The council will presumably reconvene on the matter once the town’s law firm has rendered an opinion on whether pursuing a violation against open carry on town property is viable under the law and a preemption statute.
Supporters of the ordinances argued that since state statutes implicitly preempt local ordinances in just two specific areas — firearm sales and hunting regulation — all three of the proposals were constitutionally doable.