Two years after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the economy tops guns as the central issue for Connecticut voters. But with Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy running for his second term, gun control proponents say they want to send a message with his re-election: They will protect politicians who take on the gun lobby.
"He was really a strong, indispensable supporter of gun violence prevention after Sandy Hook and he should be rewarded for that," said Shannon Watts, who has paired up with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to create the group Everytown for Gun Safety.
One day before Tuesday's election, Malloy was locked in a tough fight with his Republican opponent Thomas C. Foley, a former ambassador to Ireland and private equity investor, who has said he would sign a repeal of the gun control legislation passed after the shootings if it were approved. The latest Quinnipiac University poll had Malloy leading with 47 percent support among likely voters, to Foley's 44 percent. Seven percent of voters remained undecided after independent candidate Joseph Visconti bowed out of the race and endorsed Foley.
The campaign is a rematch for Malloy and Foley, who were separated by about 6,400 votes in 2010. Foley leads Malloy when voters are asked who would do a better job on taxes, jobs and government spending, according to a September poll from Quinnipiac University. But the tragedy in Newtown is still raw and backers and opponents of the stricter legislation, both inside the state and out, are watching the election closely and trying to turn it into a deciding issue. Some of those directly touched by the Sandy Hook killings, meanwhile, have channeled their grief into activism for Malloy. Others in Connecticut, sometimes even in the same family, straddle both sides of the gun issue.
Big Spending on Gun Issue
The election comes as national organizations advocating gun-control measures are taking on the long influential National Rifle Association. Their goal: to equal the NRA in passion, if not spending.
Former Rep. Gabby Giffords, a gun-control activist since she was shot in the head at a 2011 "Congress on Your Corner" event in Tucson, has visited Connecticut. Last week, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC began buying $1.7 million in ads to highlight the state's gun control laws. Other groups have spent about $780,000 to see Malloy returned to office.
“The NRA praises Tom Foley, calling him pro-gun," says the narrator in the Bloomberg ad. "No wonder. The NRA opposes comprehensive background checks — and Foley promised he'd sign a bill to weaken them — undermining our gun safety laws."
On the other side, the NRA is sending out $49,000 worth of postcards supporting Foley in the last days before Tuesday's vote. The gun industry’s trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, has reported more than $290,000 for advertising and political mailings on Foley’s behalf. The foundation, which is based in Newtown, argues that the new gun restrictions do little to protect the public.
“We think that the governor purposely set out to identify the firearms industry as a straw man, as an enemy,” said the foundation’s spokesman, Michael Bazinet. “We are not those things.”
Bazinet said his group had been shut out of discussions about the tightened gun-control legislation. It would have wanted more focus on access to guns by those who are mentally ill, he said.
Foley has been endorsed by another gun-rights group, Connecticut Citizens Defense League, whose President Scott Wilson, charged Malloy had maligned gun owners.
“The governor of Connecticut has mislabeled and characterized law-abiding gun owners in Connecticut as extremist, that we are somehow dangerous,” he said.
Nationally, the NRA has spent $30.6 million in independent expenditures for the 2014 federal elections compared to Giffords' Americans for Responsible Solutions has spent $6.8 million and Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC, $5 million, according to the most recent tallies from OpenSecrets.org, which tracks campaign spending. Everytown for Gun Safety has paid $1.2 million for lobbying to the NRA's $2.5 million.
Even as gun-control groups have embarked on their blitz, the issue has receded in most of the country, said Robert Spitzer, author of “The Politics of Gun Control” and a professor at the State University of New York in Cortland.
Connecticut's Gun Law
In Connecticut, emotions are still strong two years after the tragedy. On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza forced his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 26 children and adults in a fusillade from his Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
The legislation that followed requires weapons be registered, expands the list of banned weapons to include the rifle Lanza used and adds a prohibition on magazines of more than 10 bullets.
"We don't care if you are a Republican or a Democrat," said Watts, who formed Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America after the shootings. "If you don't support gun sense, we want you out of office. And I think that when you see 26 innocent Americans, including 20 first-graders, slaughtered in the sanctity of their American elementary school, there's no un-ringing that bell.”
Overall, Connecticut’s legislation is popular in the state. A Quinnipiac University poll in May found that 56 percent of voters approve of it. But the support is highly dependent on party and gender: More Democrats and women are in favor than Republicans or men.
Not the Top Campaign Issue
Rather than talk about the gun legislation, Foley criticizes Malloy for raising taxes and failing to get spending under control, arguing that Connecticut has the worst economic performance of any state.
“If I’d been governor, the bill would have been very different in response to what happened in Newtown,” he said in response to a question while visiting a recent chili cook-off in Windsor. “But I think people in this race are focused on jobs and the economy, taxes, spending and Connecticut’s future."
Foley has said that he thought the legislation offered little to address access to guns for those who are mentally ill or urban crime with illegal guns, and that he would sign a repeal if one were approved by the General Assembly though no one believes that is likely.
Malloy counters that the mental health criticism is a false issue. Not only did Lanza come from a wealthy family able to afford mental health care, but Connecticut has increased spending on care, he said. And Malloy is unapologetic about his criticism of the NRA, which he says is out of step with its own members on such points as universal background checks.
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.
The gun legislation in one among a list of accomplishments, Malloy said. He also is running on school reform and agreements on economic development and job creation, he said.
“We win the votes of people who are going to vote this issue and we win the votes of people who are going to vote other issues,” he said. “Intensity gets measured on Election Day.”
Before he dropped out of the race, Visconti charged that the gun legislation is meant to make it difficult for law-abiding people to own any guns. He would put police officers at every school.
From Grief to Activism
The morning of the Sandy Hook shootings, Abbey Clements’ class was supposed to be making snowflakes for a PTA luncheon. Instead, the pupils huddled together singing Christmas songs to try to mute the sound of Lanza's rifle.
Today the second-grade teacher is volunteering for Malloy's re-election.
"He continued to push for change and he continued to keep what happened to us right in the forefront of his mind,” she said.
Mark Barden is also among Malloy’s supporters. Barden's 7-year-old son Daniel was killed in the shootings. He said Malloy had the courage to transcend politics and sign legislation — he does not use the phrase gun control — that would save lives while preserving constitutional rights. He would like to see more officials do what Malloy did, he said.
“I think the public sentiment is changing on this issue,” he said. “I think the playing field is changing….Enough people are saying ‘Enough is enough, this is ridiculous.’ And I think that the politics is changing as well.”
Taking Sides on Connecticut's Law
At a recent Malloy campaign stop at Scotts' Jamaican Bakery in Hartford, the owner, Gordon Scott, said that people had the right to own weapons but not all kinds.
“Hunting is one thing but I’m not sure anyone needs an AK-47 to hunt or whatever those other guns are," he said.
But in Windsor, Mike McDonald, the owner of a security guard firm, said he agreed with Foley: The legislation failed to address issue of mental illness and guns.
For Paul Tappenden, the best kind of politician is one who interferes the least with his life and in this race, that means Foley.
Tappenden, a truck driver from Windsor, said his top concern was taxes, not gun laws.
His wife, Trish, who works as a secretary, said she was torn about the legislation. No one needs an Uzi submachine gun, she said.
“People own a lot of things they don’t need,” he countered. “If you’re legal and you’re sane and you’ve passed a background check and you want to go to the range and blast off a thousand rounds in a minute, you should be allowed to do that.”