One problem with the Connecticut gun-control law that went into effect earlier this year is that it wasn’t properly enacted into law. At least, that’s the argument the National Shooting Sports Foundation makes in a suit it filed last week, which alleges that lawmakers illegally circumvented the normal legislative process in their rush to pass a bill in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting rampage.
The 139-page bill was introduced into the state senate on the morning of April 3, and the next day it was signed by the governor. This sort of haste has become commonplace over the last few years, with members of Congress and state legislators across the country passing consequential bills that they could not possibly have had time to read and understand. Nancy Pelosi gave the definitive explanation of this method of legislating when she said of President Obama’s health-care law that “we have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.”
But Connecticut, as it turns out, has a law on the books that’s designed to ensure that legislators and the public at least theoretically have the opportunity to comprehend the contents of bills before they are voted on. The law requires that bills be printed and posted online for at least two legislative days before their passage. There is an exception for “emergency” legislation, which lets the senate president pro tempore and the speaker of the house waive the rule, as long as they certify in writing “the facts which in their opinion necessitate an immediate vote.”
Legislators can usually come up with facts they can use to justify bypassing public hearings and committee referrals, and “emergency certification” is a tool that is resorted to whenever they judge it expedient. In this case, they apparently found it useful to bring the gun-control bill to a vote as quickly as possible.
Where they slipped up, according to the NSSF complaint, was in failing to list any facts whatsoever that made an immediate vote necessary. The law doesn’t require that the facts be convincing, just that they be written down, but for whatever reason they weren’t.
Because the emergency certification was invalid, the suit contends, the process by which the law was passed wasn’t legal, and therefore the law itself is invalid. This is a different tack from the one taken in another suit that has been filed against the law — by a coalition of retailers, individuals, and gun-rights groups — which makes the law’s infringement of the Second Amendment the crux of the challenge.
When asked for comment on the merits of the NSSF complaint, Governor Daniel P. Malloy’s communications director, Andrew Doba, punted, responding, “It’s really up to the courts.” But regardless of what the federal district court will make of it, the suit raises the question whether there were, in fact, any good reasons why legislation crafted this spring in response to the Newtown massacre, which took place in December, needed to be treated as an emergency. Larry Keane, the NSSF’s general counsel, told NBC Connecticut: “The only emergency that existed here was a political one.”
It’s true that compared with New York State’s disastrous rush to legislate in the aftermath of Newtown, the hearings held by Connecticut’s Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety look positively deliberative. But it’s not clear why the legislation that was drafted in response to the Task Force’s recommendations three months after the shootings needed to be sent directly to a vote without opportunity for public scrutiny or input, or even a thorough reading by the people who were voting on it.
State senator Donald Williams, the president pro tempore who co-signed the emergency certification, believes the law will be upheld. He issued a statement in response to the suit expressing incredulity that the NSSF “apparently believe that the murders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School were not worthy of emergency-certified legislation.” This is a rather odd way of putting it; Williams seems to imply that it would have somehow dishonored the victims or made light of the tragedy to have thoroughly considered legislation meant to prevent something similar from happening in the future.
News reports about the suit have invariably noted that the NSSF’s office “is located just three miles from Sandy Hook School,” as if this proximity makes its challenge to the gun-control law particularly heartless. The NSSF, as the trade association for the firearms and ammunition industry, is presumed to be making a cynical case against a law that harms its members’ interests. According to Senator Williams, the lawsuit is “part of a shameful national campaign to intimidate legislators . . . from requiring background checks and keeping weapons of war out of the hands of those who would harm our children.”
Whether the law Williams and his colleagues passed would actually accomplish that aim is a question that might have benefited from some more consideration.
— Katherine Connell is an editorial associate at National Review.