In the aftermath of the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, where 20 children and six educators were killed in 2012, state lawmakers in Connecticut set out to draft some of the toughest gun measures in the country.
They largely succeeded — significantly expanding an existing ban on the sale of assault weapons, prohibiting the sale of magazines with more than 10 rounds and requiring the registration of existing assault rifles and higher-capacity magazines. The state also required background checks for all firearms sales and created a registry of weapons offenders, including those accused of illegally possessing a firearm.
Now, in the wake of another wrenching shooting rampage — this one at a high school in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 — and in the absence of any federal action, gun-control advocates, Democratic politicians and others are pointing to the success of states like Connecticut in addressing the spiraling toll of gun violence.
Analyses by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence show that states with the strictest gun-control measures, including California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, have the lowest rates of gun deaths, while those with the most lax laws like Alabama, Alaska and Louisiana, have the highest. The center is named for former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic lawmaker from Arizona who suffered a serious brain injury in 2011 during a mass shooting in which she was the intended target.
After Connecticut’s General Assembly passed the package of gun laws, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, signed it into law, gun-related deaths started to drop. According to the chief medical examiner’s office in Connecticut, the number of deaths resulting from firearms — including homicides, suicides and accidents — fell to 164 in 2016, from 226 in 2012.
There is no doubt that there are limits to state and local gun laws. Cities like Chicago and Baltimore, with rigorous gun laws, also have two of the highest murder rates in the country. The black market for illegal guns has thrived in those cities, with gang members and criminals turning to the streets to access firearms.
And the drop in fatal shootings in Connecticut has occurred in the context of a broad, long-term decline in violent crime across the country. Citing F.B.I. statistics, the Pew Research Center reports that violent crime fell 48 percent from 1993 to 2016.
Gun-rights groups say the problem is not the guns, but the individuals using them. They argue that laws alone are no panacea, and that social issues like mental illness and unemployment must be addressed to help curb gun violence. Some gun advocates have also called for more training and security for those who legally and responsibly maintain guns.
Still, with little appetite in Congress to take on gun control, the debate is playing out at the state level, with Connecticut seen as a model for gun-control advocates.
“Connecticut’s laws are among the nation’s toughest and homicides are down,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said. “Obviously the link is a circumstantial one; cause and effect can’t be proven conclusively. But the numbers are all in the right direction. States like Connecticut can help shame Congress into adopting common-sense measures that keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”
State officials say Connecticut has experienced the fastest drop in violent crime of any state over the last four years. Gun-control advocates say the assailant in Florida, Nikolas Cruz, could not have bought the AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle used in the attack, or the high-capacity magazines, in Connecticut.
“We really need to do a better job at making sure we have strong gun laws in every state in the country, because we are losing our most valuable resource, which is our children,” said Jeremy I. Stein, the executive director of CT Against Gun Violence, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Even in Connecticut, where parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook met with lawmakers as they debated the legislation, the measures fell short of what gun-control advocates wanted. For example, the laws did not force residents to relinquish existing assault weapons and high-capacity magazines or limit the number of firearms people could own.
At a hearing a month after the Newtown shooting, some speakers talked of the need to hold people accountable. “The problem is not gun laws. The problem is a lack of civility,” said Mark Mattioli, whose son James, 6, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary.
The Giffords Center, which keeps a state-by-state report card, gave Connecticut an A-minus for its gun laws — the same grade given to New York, which moved even more swiftly after Sandy Hook to pass stricter laws. The center ranked Connecticut 46th and New York 48th for their gun death rates, among the five lowest in the United States.
In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a law a month after the massacre at Sandy Hook that is, in some respects, stricter than the one in Connecticut. The New York law not only bans the sale of assault weapons and imposes universal background checks, it also prohibits both the sale — and possession — of magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds. And it requires mental health professionals to alert the authorities about at-risk patients who should not be allowed to buy a firearm. As of Feb. 8, 77,447 people deemed to be dangerously mentally ill had been added to the database.
Avery W. Gardiner, a president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said that generally, blue states are, not surprisingly, more likely to regulate guns and require background checks and licensing. Conservative red states either lack gun-safety laws or fail to enforce the ones they have. Her group’s strategy includes filing lawsuits to enforce existing safety laws and countering the gun lobby, which uses its muscle in statehouses as well as Congress.
The lobbying has been hard on both sides. According to the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics, in the past three election cycles the National Rifle Association, the nation’s leading gun lobby, spent a total of $10.6 million to support candidates for state office in 25 states. Between 2009 and 2016, at least two-thirds of that spending went to state contests in which the group’s chosen candidate won.
“Florida has gone the wrong way since Sandy Hook for sensible laws,” Ms. Gardiner said, citing a Florida law that would have restricted doctors from even asking patients about gun safety. The Brady Center sued Florida on the grounds that the law violated the first amendment’s guarantee of free speech and a year ago a panel of federal judges ruled in the center’s favor.
In Connecticut, the question of magazine capacity became emotionally charged as the stricter gun laws were being debated. That is because the Sandy Hook attacker, Adam Lanza, like other mass gunmen, used high-capacity magazines that allowed him to rapidly fire 30 rounds. A group of first graders at Sandy Hook ran past Mr. Lanza, escaping from the hail of bullets when he had to stop and reload.
At a news conference in April, 2013, on the day lawmakers announced an agreement on gun control, Nicole Hockley, whose son, Dylan, died at Sandy Hook, said: “We ask ourselves every day — every minute — if those magazines had held 10 rounds, forcing the shooter to reload at least six more times, would our children be alive today?”
Connecticut’s sweeping gun laws did, however, require residents who already owned high-capacity magazines and assault rifles to register them with the State Police. Today, the registry lists 52,648 assault weapons. A single resident registered 179 assault weapons, while another registered more than 500,000 magazines exceeding the 10-round limit. Between 2013 and 2017, 248 people were charged with illegally possessing an assault weapon because they either failed to register an existing weapon or had bought a weapon after the law went into effect.
The state also requires that individuals admitted to psychiatric hospitals relinquish their guns, at least temporarily. The State Police is notified of such patients by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which maintains a database, and ensures that upon discharge, the gun owner turns in the weapon or transfers it to someone eligible for a gun permit. In addition, people who were previously treated in a mental hospital cannot get a permit.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a lobby group in Newtown, Conn., declined to comment on the impact of Connecticut’s gun laws “out of respect for the families, the community and the ongoing law enforcement investigation” in Parkland, Fla. The National Rifle Association did not respond to a request to comment.
Connecticut is also one of a handful of states with another gun law with some teeth — an “extreme risk protection order.” Akin to a restraining order for domestic violence victims, the protection order, which predates Sandy Hook, gives the police the power to temporarily take away an individual’s guns if a person makes threats, acts violently, abuses drugs or commits animal cruelty.
In the Florida massacre, the authorities believe that the gunman may have made threatening comments on social media, including one last September — “I’m going to be a professional school shooter” — and had also posted a photo of a bloodied frog.
A study that examined Connecticut’s risk protection order found that, from 1999 to 2013, 99 percent of warrants led to the confiscation of at least one gun. In nearly half the cases, the gun owner wound up receiving psychiatric treatment.
Mike Lawlor, the criminal justice adviser to Governor Malloy, said that the law arose from two high-profile shootings in the 1990s by people with severe mental health issues. “When there’s no law that’s actually been broken, but when there is real evidence that the person is a danger to others, the police need to have an option,” he said. “Step one is to get the guns.”