In the waning moments of Dec. 31, 2013, as millions of Americans raised their champagne glasses and counted down to 2014, an estimated 300,000 residents of Connecticut gulped. In a matter of seconds they’d gone from law-abiding citizens to people committing felonies.
In the preceding months, certain Connecticut gun owners had been faced with a decision: Should they register the firearms they owned that state politicians now deemed “assault weapons” for nebulous reasons, or should they hide them away or ship them out of state? The sweeping definition of an “assault weapon” under Connecticut statute is too long to print here (nearly 600 words), but can be read at: www.jud.ct.gov/ji/criminal/glossary/assaultweapon.htm.
After Jan.1, 2014, some Connecticut residents simply gave in or, like many do with the annual income-tax deadline, didn’t get the paperwork done in time. The form, after all, requires a thumbprint and must be notarized. Whatever their reasons, they sent the Connecticut State Police (CSP) an “Assault Weapon Certificate Application” after the deadline.
Connecticut, however, wouldn’t be as forgiving as even the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS allows people to file extensions for late returns. The CSP would do no such thing.
In February, the CSP mailed letters to people who sent in late applications, telling them they could:
Render the “assault weapon” permanently inoperable;
Sell the “assault weapon” to a licensed dealer;
Remove the “assault weapon” from the state; or
Make arrangements to relinquish the “assault weapon” to a police department or the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
The letter was signed, “Sincerely, Lt. Eric Cooke, Commanding Officer, Special Licensing and Firearms Unit.”
Shortly after that, things got strange and the CSP was caught in a public relations nightmare. When Connecticut residents who had received the letters made copies of the letter public, the CSP’s Special Licensing and Firearms Unit denied having ever sent them.
Anna Kopperud, the NRA’s state lobbyist for Connecticut, called the CSP’s Special Licensing and Firearms Unit on both Feb. 26 and Feb. 27 to find out the options available to gun owners in Connecticut.
“The CSP spent a day and a half telling me there was no such letter,” Kopperud said. “When I asked if a letter had been forged and, if so, how did someone get gun owners’ addresses, they said they didn’t know.”
The CSP’s denial of sending the letter was widely reported by bloggers, on firearm-related websites and by the media.
However, questions sent by America’s 1st Freedom to the CSP’s department spokesman, Lt. J. Paul Vance, drew a much different answer on Feb. 28.
“The letter was sent [by Lt. Cooke] to people who did not register their weapon by the deadline,” Vance said. “It was simply an effort to assist them and advise them of some choices they have.”
It is unclear why the CSP initially denied sending the letter and gave the impression that the letter was a forgery sent by someone outside the organization. Likewise, it is unclear if a gun owner who is in the process of transporting such a firearm out of state or to a gun dealer to “dispose of” it might be charged with a felony if they’re caught. Would the letter from Lt. Cooke give them safe passage?
Such is just the first blush of problems that arise when state legislatures decide to ban firearms and require tens of thousands of law-abiding citizens to report their ownership to the police.
Note that the numbers of gun owners who might still have “assault weapons” in Connecticut are not just pure speculation. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade association for firearm manufacturers, estimates there are likely 350,000 residents of Connecticut who owned now-banned “assault weapons” as of late 2013.More than 300,000 Connecticut residents may have decided not to register their “assault weapons,” moved them out of state or sold them.
The NSSF says, “The 350,000 number is a conservative estimate based upon numerous surveys, consumer purchases, NICS background check data and also private party transactions.” The NSSF used the same criteria to estimate that at least 1 million New York residents have firearms the state banned the sale of and demanded that owners register with the police.
As of Dec. 31, 2013, according to Lt. Vance, the CSP had received 41,347 applications to register “assault weapons,” and 36,932 applications to register so-called “high-capacity” magazines. That means more than 300,000 Connecticut residents may have decided not to register their “assault weapons,” moved them out of state or sold them.
The next question is what the state will do about all those gun owners who now might be in illegal possession of a previously owned “assault weapon.” Will the CSP ask for search warrants? Connecticut’s Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection (DESPP) has been using a “Sale or Transfer of All Firearms” form at the retail level that acts as a de facto registration scheme, as it requires that gun sales, along with make, model, serial number and the buyer’s information, be reported to the DESPP and the police. As a result, the CSP has information on which residents might own an unregistered firearm the state considers an “assault weapon.”
When asked if the CSP would use late-registration applications to obtain warrants to seize “assault weapons” Vance largely avoided answering the question.
“Again, we don’t make the laws,” he said. “Our legislature has that responsibility.”
It is also unclear whether the CSP might attempt to use existing gun-registration records to obtain warrants to search the residences of the Connecticut residents who might have such unregistered firearms.
Meanwhile, Connecticut’s gun owners have become a class apart. I asked a few Connecticut gun owners who own—or used to own—so-called “assault weapons” what they are doing in response to the current situation.
The people I spoke with don’t believe in gun registries. They believe the Second Amendment is a restriction placed on the government to safeguard the citizenry’s right to own and bear arms. This restriction—a negative liberty—surely prevents local, state and the federal government from mandating that citizens apply to the government for their rights. So they’ve been reluctant to give the state their gun information.
“I just came from my local gun store,” one told me. “I had to test a shotgun refitted with a straight stock to make it compliant. It still holds nine rounds, but the world is now a little safer without that ‘evil’ pistol grip.”
Another told me: “I have four friends who have either bought homes or property out of Connecticut or are shopping hard. This issue was the final straw for them.”
Several said they had shipped their “bad” guns out of state.
What happens next is initially up to the state legislatures and governors who wrote, passed and signed “assault weapons” legislation into law in Connecticut, New York and Maryland. Court challenges, including one backed by the NRA, are underway. Elections are coming.
But when tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens suddenly have to either give up property they lawfully acquired or potentially commit felonies, something has gone seriously awry. Let’s hope the powers-that-be in Connecticut realize that and reverse course on this ill-considered, unworkable law.