As the deadline for gun-owners arrived Tuesday, upward of 30,000 Connecticut residents declared that they own at least one assault weapon and registrations were still arriving in the mail.
The big question looking forward, which we’ll never be able to answer, is this: How many owners of military-style rifles didn’t register their weapons, thereby becoming criminals as of Wednesday? And what will state officials do about it?
State officials estimated 25,000 people registered as of Friday, and since then, thousands more came in by mail and in person at State Police headquarters in Middletown. Many owned just one firearm, said Lt. Paul Vance, state police spokesman. But, he said, “There are some who have many assault weapons.”
Separately, as of Friday, 17,000 people had registered magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, with many more coming in — and some declaring dozens of magazines.
A final count of all registrations won’t be available for several days, Vance said.
The numbers have been a mystery even to people watching the process closely. Some estimates circulating in the state Capitol last spring had more than 100,000 assault weapons in Connecticut, perhaps as many as 250,000, under the broader definition established by the law that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed April 4.
Lines at state police headquarters in Middletown were moving smoothly, down to about 20 people by late Tuesday morning, Vance said. Earlier, and on Monday, he said, “It wrapped around the building, it was extremely long.”
Vance said employees were helping people in the lines so that many didn’t have to wait until they reached the front. “We took some people out of the office in special licensing and firearms to accomplish the task,” he said. By afternoon, the lines were gone.
Under the April 4 law, most rifles with semiautomatic action, meaning they reload a round with each pull of the trigger, and with military-style characteristics such as a pistol grip, were classified as “assault weapons” even though the gun industry considers an assault weapon to be a fully automatic firearm, shooting multiple shots with one pull of the trigger — which is illegal for civilians to own except in rare cases.
Firearms defined by the state as assault weapons were not legal for sale in Connecticut as of April 4, and anyone who owned one prior to that date had to register it by Tuesday. As of Wednesday, it is a Class D felony to own an unregistered assault weapon made after 1993, when a state law outlawed the sale of a narrower group of assault weapons. It’s a misdemeanor if the resident has owned the gun since before the 1993 law.
Owners of those firearms that were made illegal for sale in 1993, and again when the state’s definition of assault weapons was broadened in 2000, were required to register them, but that list totals only a few thousand, said Mike Lawlor, undersecretary for criminal justice at the state Office of Policy and Management.
Gun owners on the line who spoke with a Courant reporter on Friday did like having to register, and did not like the idea that the law is creating a new class of felons who were previously law-abiding citizens. Though an exact count of unregistered guns will be impossible to tally, there are records of retail gun sales, which could tell officials who in Connecticut owns a gun — assuming that gun had not been sold privately.
“It would be interesting to compare those names,” Lawlor said. He stopped short of suggesting the state would conduct an active search for owners of unregistered guns.
The felony charge is already in effect for anyone who owns an assault weapon that he or she did not own prior to April 4, as happened in the case of a University of New Haven student who was charged with illegally owning a Bushmaster.
And starting April 1, 2014, all transfers of rifles in Connecticut, including private sales, will be subject to registration. Since 1994, owners have had to register handgun transfers.
The numbers, once tallied in a few days, will tell a story about firearms in Connecticut, though an incomplete one, said Lawlor, who, as a lawmaker, was instrumental in the earlier gun registration and ban laws.
“At the end of the day the goal is to enforce responsible ownership,” Lawlor said. “The goal is to have fewer people getting shot.”