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After School Shooting, Gun Control Remains a State-by-State Issue

Some states have responded with restrictions, but many more have loosened requirements. Dan Malloy, governor of Connecticut during Sandy Hook, reflects on how he was able to get a gun-safety law passed.

A woman cries Tuesday, May 24, 2022, as she leaves the Uvalde Civic Center, in Uvalde, Texas.
A woman cries Tuesday, May 24, 2022, as she leaves the Uvalde Civic Center, in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen students and two adults were killed when a gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.
(William Luther/San Antonio Express-News/Zuma Press/TNS)
The school shooting Tuesday in Uvalde, Texas, was the deadliest in American history, with one exception. A decade ago, 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Dan Malloy was then the governor of Connecticut. Ultimately, he was the one who informed parents their children were dead. “It probably was, in many ways, one of the more important things I’ve done in my life,” he says.

Following that shooting, Malloy, a Democrat, shepherded one of the nation’s strictest gun laws through the Legislature. Since then, Connecticut has consistently ranked among the five or six states with the lowest rates of gun violence.

Malloy isn’t optimistic about the prospects that more jurisdictions will soon follow suit. “This is really a state-by-state issue, and each state’s different,” he says. “Maybe there will be some progress in Congress on universal background checks, but I don’t think there’s a long list of other possibilities on a federal level or national level.”

Malloy, now the chancellor of the University of Maine, spoke with Governing about his reaction to the latest school shooting. Here are edited excerpts from that interview:

Governing: There have been a lot of comments over the past few days that nothing has changed since Sandy Hook. That may be true at the federal level, but not at the state level. Can you comment on where things stand?

Malloy: In the absence of federal work on things that Americans agree on, like universal background checks, states have stepped forward — some states have stepped forward to revise their laws after Sandy Hook. California and New York, Connecticut and Maryland made adjustments. Other states made adjustments. The laws that have been enacted have been upheld. That’s certainly the case in Connecticut, where universal background checks are required and other requirements such as training and permitting have been upheld as well.

You said state laws have been upheld. How nervous are you about this pending Supreme Court decision regarding a century-old New York regulation?

How should I say this? Established precedents, apparently, are on the table again, let’s say. Given the makeup of the court, I’m cautious. I hope for the best, and don’t necessarily expect it.

I don’t think there’s a long list of other possibilities for action on a federal level or national level, and therefore, this is a debate that will be had in all 50 states and commonwealths. I just think that progress will be made where it can — what I would call progress will be made where it can, and it won’t be made where it can’t be.
Former Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy. (David Kidd/Governing)
Talk about how you were able to get that 2013 law passed in Connecticut and what the importance of it has been.

You know, it was a struggle. What I ultimately did was put out a document that outlined what I thought was necessary to make Connecticut safer. Then I did, I think, 17 town hall meetings across the state where people could come out and yell at me. But ultimately, I think that demonstrated that there was more support for safety than there was for a less safe Connecticut.

And results were quite positive. You know, crime dropped precipitously, and continued really up until the time of COVID-19.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has had a lot of legal and financial problems and even attempted to file for bankruptcy last year. The various gun control groups, on the other hand, are better funded and better organized than they used to be. Has the dynamic shifted in any meaningful way as a result of that?

I think it has on a state-by-state basis, and it absolutely has not on a federal basis. I don't have hope at that level, with the possible exception of one thing that 90 percent of America right now can agree on, that there should be universal background checks.

I've been seeing a lot of comments on social media over the past couple of days, parents describing discussions with their children about this latest school shooting and being dismayed that their kids almost kind of shrug it off, saying this is normal, we've trained for this. The Washington Post maintains a database showing more than 311,000 children have been exposed to gun violence at schools since Columbine in 1999. Do you have any thoughts on what the effects are for children to grow up thinking that this is normal?

I have grandchildren, and I worry about them. Let’s admit it: Schools are targets. Let's build them like they’re targets.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, we put a commission together, and we have about a 250-page report. And part of that was just around how schools are constructed, and how access is gained, and the like. One of the recommendations was that glass doors need to be reinforced and glazed, so that they can hold back someone for at least five minutes, even with a gun.

There is this fraternity of families who've been through these shootings, who reach out to help the families in places like Uvalde. Can you just talk about what that community is like?

The parents are extraordinary individuals who have survived a life-changing event — a life-ending and a life-changing event. Some of them have chosen to be advocates for safety and others have the right to live their private life and handle their grief in the way that they want to handle it.

It fell to you to tell the Sandy Hook parents their children had died. Can you describe what that was like for you?

These were people who were suffering, and protocols were preventing the telling of the reality to folks. The standard operating practice is you don't tell someone they've lost a loved one until you can identify. I understood that those identifications might not take place for another 10 or 12 hours. It just was inhuman to me.

I just decided it had gone on long enough. In fairness to these individuals, they needed to know that all who could be accounted for had been. Brutal.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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