Candles with the names of shooting victims written on them sit at a memorial near Sandy Hook Elementary School, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 in Newtown, Conn. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
Twenty-six names. It was the Republican State Senate minority leader, not a Democrat, who read out that list of Sandy Hook's dead children and teachers in the Connecticut State Capitol in April, in support of the state's sweeping new gun law. In the run-up to the vote, NRA members by the busload had flooded the Capitol's lawn and hallways. But by the time John McKinney—whose district includes Newtown—closed the debate with those names, legislators had also walked a quiet gantlet of Sandy Hook parents, who pressed letters and photos of their massacred children into politicians' hands.
Connecticut's bill marks a vital achievement for the families of Sandy Hook Promise, formed after the killings, and for Governor Dannel Malloy. The bill—more comprehensive both in gun regulation and social policy than the background checks facing an uphill battle in Congress or the post-Newtown gun laws passed in New York, Colorado and Maryland—attempts, among other things, to close the multiple loopholes that permitted shooter Adam Lanza to assemble an armory, kill his mother—who had legally bought his arsenal—and invade Sandy Hook Elementary School. As Malloy said after signing the bill, "If we had the law that we signed today in effect, Mrs. Lanza would not have been able to purchase that gun. It would not have been in that home." And while the bill does not address the handguns responsible for most of the killing in Connecticut's cities—as Malloy pointed out, ninety-four of the state's 129 homicides in 2011 were in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven—it does go after the supply chain, toughening penalties for straw buyers and traffickers.
Along with the new gun restrictions, the Connecticut bill also initiates large-scale reform of the state's mental health infrastructure. The question in Newtown—as in Aurora, Tucson and at Virginia Tech—is how an obviously deranged and dangerous person could slip through the cracks. Connecticut's new legislation envisions a grassroots safety net of teachers and first responders trained to recognize people at risk and steer them to help; gives police and other agencies marching orders on communicating with one another and keeping potentially dangerous people away from weapons; and requires insurance companies to give priority to mental health requests. Addressing such issues is as central to preventing massacres as the bill's gun provisions, and is just as important a piece of the social contract.
The success of Connecticut's legislation also vindicates go-for-broke political leadership in the face of tragedy. That includes President Obama and first-term Governor Malloy, whose vigil with Sandy Hook's families last December transformed him from a pragmatic, sometimes technocratic progressive into a determined moral crusader, openly contemptuous of the NRA and its president, Wayne LaPierre (who, Malloy said, "reminds me of clowns at a circus. They get all the attention"). For months, legislators in both parties dragged their feet. Finally, in early April, Malloy and Connecticut's US senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, publicly shamed a General Assembly unaccustomed to serious scrutiny or quick action, warning of dire consequences for the gun debate nationally if the home state of the December 14 massacre could not act.