Darien Police Chief Duane Lovello said he supports a ban on assault weapons and stricter background checks for people seeking gun permits during the Democratic Town Committee's forum on gun control held Saturday at the Darien Library.
The first in the DTC's 2013 Speaker Series, "POLICYmatters: Conversations That Strengthen Our Community," the forum also featured Congressman Jim Himes (D-4th), Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen and Ron Pinciaro of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, and mostly focused on gun control legislation currently proposed in Congress and the General Assembly in Hartford.
"Do I think an assault weapons ban is going to appreciably reduce the amount of gun violence in Connecticut? No. Do I support an assault weapon ban personally? Yes," Lovello told the crowd of nearly 100 people who gathered for the event. "Why?I just don't want people in Darien or my officers facing that threat. Selfishly I just want it to go away... "
Lovello said one of the major weaknesses in the current permitting system is that it fails to adequately screen applicants who have been treated for mental illness, and therefore might pose a threat to society if issued a firearm.
"The mental health component is very difficult," he said. " …because in effect you are talking about one of the ultimate invasions of personal privacy; that is, delving into people's mental health records."
As Lovello explained, health information privacy laws such as HIPAA actually work against stricter gun control because they hinder police from properly validating whether someone has been treated in the past.
"When we sign pistol permits—persons are only required to check off boxes, I have no way of validating if they are telling the truth," he said. "When they come to the question, 'Have you been treated by order of the court at a mental health facility in the last 12 months?' and they check off the box that says 'No,' that's as far as I can go."
Furthermore, by the time local and state authorities are able to verify all the information in the permit application, "the person has already received their permit," he said.
"I do think there are methods of strengthening the permit process to allow for a more comprehensive background check," Lovello said. "I do think there is legislation that is needed nationally—straw purchasers should be prosecuted fully—gun show loopholes need to be closed…"
"I'm a firm believer in the Second Amendment, but I also think we have to take a breath at some point," he said, adding that assault weapons such as the Bushmaster .223 that Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook School massacre are overkill for home protection. "I don't think our founding fathers ever anticipated the speed and efficiency with which we are killing each other. We're killing each other at an alarming pace... "
Lovello acknowledged that Darien "is an extraordinarily safe community—we don't see a lot of gun violence." He said the police department has issued about 200 pistol permits and registered about 1,000 firearms in the past three years—however he did not provide a figure for the total number of registered firearms in town.
"Darien is not a violent community, but it is a sporting community," he said. "There is extensive skeet and trap shooting, target shooting and hunting. But does that make us less safe? No, I don't think so—and the evidence doesn't support that."
Lovello pointed out that not all firearms in town are necessarily registered — some antique weapons are "grandfathered" under the law, and "hand-me-downs" such as "grandpa's hunting rifle" don't necessarily require registration, especially if they are never removed from the house, he said.
Lovello said the department has seized approximately 80 guns in the past several years — most of them the result of domestic violence incidents. He said several years ago Connecticut amended its domestic violence laws to require that all firearms be removed from a residence where a domestic incident has occurred.
In response to the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Lovello said the police department has established a close relationship with the school district.
However he said the development of new security protocols has been "complex" due to school operational issues and state mandates. There have been conflicts, for example, in determining which staff should have key card access to school facilities — and state mandates requiring things like a certain amount of natural light in the schools have bumped up against plans to make facilities more secure, he said.
"It's hard to make a facility more secure and yet maintain a proper school environment," Lovello said, adding that making schools more secure while maintaining an "open" campus, so that students don't feel like they're in a prison, is a difficult balancing act.
Lovello said he does not support the use of armed guards in the schools, but he does support the use of School Resource Officers.
"An armed guard is so far afield from an SRO you can't compare the two," he said, adding that the SRO recently implemented at Darien High School "has been absolutely a home run."
"It's a completely different dynamic," he said. "The SRO is part of the school environment — he is considered part of the school administration. He teaches classes, he is a resource for kids, and, believe it or not, there are a lot of kids in Darien who don't have a dominant adult role model in their life. The resource officer is not there to bust kids ... that's not what they're there for... "
Lovello said since the Newtown tragedy his department has worked closely with the school administration to implement changes to school security protocols and procedures. He said they've done lockdown drills — including mapping all the floor plans and numbering all the doors — at each of the schools.
"We've done inspections of every [school] facility… we've looked at every door, every window," he said, adding that some of the schools have an "enormous number of doors," Ox Ridge having the most with its interior courtyards.