Sen. Chris Murphy and Congressman Jim Himes joined local and state politicians, law enforcement officials and mental health advocates Thursday afternoon at the Yerwood Center in Stamford for a roundtable discussion on reducing gun violence in the city and the rest of Connecticut's urban areas and ongoing efforts to change gun and assault weapon legislation both on the state and national level in reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings.
According to Murphy, the roundtable, which included Rep. William Tong (D-141), Stamford Police Chief Jonathan Fontneau, CT State Police Major Bill Podgorski and Sherry Perlstein, executive director of Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut, would serve as a conversation starter "to make sure that the laws we pass make the likelihood of shootings [like Sandy Hook] lower" and reduce the amount of "men and women in Stamford and across this state that are gunned down."
Murphy told attendees that he believes if Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza had to stop sooner to reload his weapon, more lives might have been spared.
"Clearly, in my mind, there is no reason why anyone should have access to a military-style assault weapon or a magazine clip that holds 30 or 100 bullets," he said. "I believe in my heart that there would be little boys and girls still alive today in Sandy Hook, Connecticut if the federal assault weapons ban was still in place and if that young man re-armed himself every 10 bullets instead of every 30 bullets."
Murphy also said that if Lanza would have had access to proper mental health services, the outcome of Dec. 14, 2012 might have been different.
"We have a system that directs an enormous number of errors, especially for young adults that want to seek help and for parents that want to seek help for their children," he said. "And so we need to have a conversation about how we can better make sure that there are resources available for those who have [mental] illness and may be prone to violence."
Himes said that advocating for tougher gun control laws is a "heck of a challenge" but if politicians, community leaders and residents work together, they could have enough impact to change the legislation locally and nationally. He warned attendees, however, about the "inflamed radical other side" that believes banning assault weapons violates the Constitution and specifically referred to his challenge of Texas Governor Rick Perry's views on gun safety and ownership.
"There is the possibility of changing the discussion at the national level because, frankly, the discussion is insane... The policy is insane nationally..." he said. "Any effort to have that commonsensical discussion about whether in fact anybody needs a 30-round clip is not acceptable. And the reason that discussion is not acceptable is because if the opponents of reasonable measures to reduce gun violence are forced into a discussion that is fact-based and data driven, they have not one piece of ground to stand on—nothing."
Treating Adolescents with Mental Illness
The discussion later turned to improving and increasing mental health services for students and their families and removing the existing stigma that those suffering from mental illness are more prone to violence.
Daniella Giordano, public policy director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) CT, told attendees that the state and the country needs to start looking at mental health illness as something that not only affects those that are afflicted and their loved ones, but everyone.
"It's about our children, it's about our communities that we all deeply care about..." she said. "And, first of all, it's about stepping away from who is affected by mental health issues. It's about all of us—whether it's someone that we care about who's struggling with something—including now the people in the Sandy Hook community and everyone in Connecticut, in the nation and the world. We need to think about this differently and not make this direct connection between people who have mental health challenges and violence because that absolutely not accurate... People with mental issues are much more likely to be victims of violence..."
Mirroring initiatives in President Obama's proposal to Congress addressing mental illness, the panelists also discussed the need for fully funded community-based health centers across nation, as well as funding to train mental health professionals so that adolescents aren't placed on waiting list to be diagnosed and treated.
Stamford's Efforts to Curb Gun Violence
When addressing what the city Stamford is specifically doing to curb gun violence on its streets, Rep. Tong told attendees that he immediately thinks of his child, who was born during the same week as Rep. Gerald Fox's child. Both children now attend first grade in the city.
"Everything changes when you have children," he said. "This is about our kids, the kids of Sandy Hook and the kids that come to the Yerwood Center that see violence on their neighborhoods everyday."
Police Chief Fontneau remarked that there were five homicides in Stamford in 2012, as well as one suicide and one accidental shooting. "I believe that there's no simple means here, but one of things that our agencies can do is communicate and collaborate," he said.
He said that as a result of the city's gun buyback program last fall, 34 guns made it off the streets. Fontneau also said that each high school has a school resource officer and each elementary and middle school has an unarmed security guard.
Public Safety Director Ted Jankowski said, however, that he doesn't want Stamford schools to resemble prisons. "We want each school to be a comfortable learning environment where everyone is safe."
Jack Bryant, president of the NAACP's Stamford chapter, said that he hopes the conversation surrounding gun control "would not only focus on mass shootings involving assault rifles," but gun control period, so that it would have a direct effect on urban cities like Stamford.
"When I think about armed security guards at schools, to me, that's not even a last resort," he said. "So I'm hoping that any laws that come down will prevent anyone from going down that road."