By SUSAN HAIGH
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Some Connecticut legislators hope the intense focus on gun violence following the Newtown school massacre will finally prompt the General Assembly to adequately fund a task force charged with enforcing the state’s gun possession and trafficking laws, as well as seizing illegal guns.
Both money and staffing for the Statewide Firearms Trafficking Task Force of state and local law enforcement officers has dwindled since the entity was first created by lawmakers in 2000.
“It was a pretty good program and the only reason it got cut was money reasons,” said Sen. Anthony Guglielmo, R-Stafford Springs, who has unsuccessfully proposed legislation over the years to set aside money for the task force. Both he and state Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, have proposed separate bills this session to fund the task force. While Tong’s bill would “fully fund” the task force, Guglielmo’s calls for spending $1 million.
Both bills were scheduled to be discussed Friday at a public hearing before the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee.
Republicans on the legislative gun violence subcommittee recently recommended reconstituting the gun trafficking task force and funding it with $1 million. That recommendation was among those forwarded to legislative leaders, who are trying to craft a bipartisan response to the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which left 20 first graders and six educators dead. The full General Assembly may vote later this month on the package.
Tong said he has heard the task force funding is “part of the discussion” even though the gun used by the Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, was owned legally by his mother, who he also killed.
“I think what people have tried to do is … they’ve tried to narrow Newtown and Adam Lanza to the facts of that case. They’re just trying to say, that was a special circumstance and all the laws that we pass need to focus on that special circumstance,” Tong said. “What we’re trying to do is make communities safer. That isn’t limited to just what Adam Lanza did.”
During its first year of operation in 2001, the task force had a total of nine officers. The group included state police troopers, two inspectors, a federal Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms liaison and a local officer. During its first two years of operations, the task force received state funding of $500,000 annually, according to a 2006 report from the General Assembly’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Research. Most of that money came from the former Department of Public Safety’s operating budget, with only $76,000 in new appropriations.
Today, only one state police detective is assigned to the unit and the task force has not had its own line item in the state budget since 2009. The legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis said the task force spent $248,715 in fiscal year 2012.
“It’s not totally out of business,” said Lt. J. Paul Vance, spokesman for the Connecticut State Police. “It could be bigger and probably do more work, sure. But we have to adjust with the fiscal times.”
A report on state police staffing, conducted by the nonpartisan research staff of the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee, found that the Firearms Trafficking Task Force had the largest percent decline _ 73 percent _ of all the statutorily mandated units and task forces in the state police. Vance said the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which includes the state police, has not taken a position on the bills that replenish funding for the task force.
Guglielmo credited the task force with successfully getting numerous illegal guns, often used in gun crimes, off the streets. In 2012, he said the one detective assigned to the unit made 14 arrests, carried out 30 investigations, made 21 seizures and conducted a gun show inspection.
In comparison, in 2000, the task force conducted 56 investigations, made 35 arrests and seized 379 weapons.
In 2007, lawmakers passed a bill that Tong helped to craft which addressed lost and stolen firearms. It included $400,000 in funding for each year in 2007 and 2008. In 2007, the task force conducted 33 investigations and seized 656 guns, 601 of which were seized in connection with one criminal operation. In 2008, the task force conducted 61 investigations and seized 23 guns, according to a 2008 Office of Fiscal Analysis report.
Vance said if the lone detective assigned today to the unit, who is based in Meriden, needs help, he receives it from other units. Also, he said there are currently shooting task forces in New Haven and Hartford that have been successful in removing illegal weapons from the streets. Vance said there are also specialized firearms troopers who handle gun show permits and other related issues.
“We did the best we could. Move manpower when we have to move manpower,” Vance said. “We still have the unit. We still have the detective in there.”