Camillo, Himes bring gun discussion to students

At left, US Rep Jim Himes and State Rep. Fred Camillo discussed gun control legislation before a packed crowd of students at Greenwich High School. — Ken Borsuk photo

At left, U.S. Rep Jim Himes and State Rep. Fred Camillo discussed gun control legislation before a packed crowd of students at Greenwich High School.
— Ken Borsuk photo

In recent months there has been much debate about gun control laws as Connecticut passed major new measures but federal legislation sputtered out. This week it was time to hear from a younger generation, at a special discussion at Greenwich High School.

On Tuesday morning, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th) and State Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151st) appeared before a packed audience of GHS students to talk about where they stand on legislative efforts in both the state and federal levels. But despite the differences in party affiliation this was not a debate between the two men, nor was it intended to be. Instead, GHS Headmaster Chris Winters said he wanted students to see the complexity of the discussion to provide an educational forum to learn about the issue so they could compare what they heard with what they walked in believing.

The event was moderated by two GHS students, Nicholas Debany, founder and president of the school’s Young Republicans, and Nicholas Abbott, head of the Young Democrats Club. The two, at Mr. Winters’ behest, also put the forum together in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre last December.

“Last December, a despicable act of terror brought tragedy to our state and nation,” Nicholas said. “Unfortunately, the resulting debate has been as divisive as it has been ineffective in resolving the issues at hand, namely what can be done to prevent such atrocities from occurring and how an individual’s inherent right to protect themselves, their families and their property from harm will be protected. Nick and I hope through this discussion we can come closer to reconciling these two important concerns.”

And, demonstrating the bipartisan agreement on this issue that exists in Connecticut, if not nationwide, Mr. Himes, a three-term congressman, and Mr. Camillo, who is in his third term in Hartford, ended up agreeing on many facets of the discussion. They were asked about their opinions on the new laws, the future for legislation on guns and the constitutionality of legislative efforts and on that note, both men agreed that the Second Amendment right to bear arms was not meant to be an absolute.

“One thing we should dispense with is the idea that the government does not have the authority, whether it’s the state of Connecticut or the federal government, to in any way put regulations on our ability to bear arms as the Second Amendment says,” Mr. Himes said. “I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment. I, like Fred, actually quite enjoy shooting, but every single right we have is in some way modified or conditioned. The classic example is that we have a right to free speech but you don’t have a right to scream fire in a crowded theater because people will get hurt.”

Mr. Himes cited recent Supreme Court rulings that reaffirmed both the individual right to bear arms as well as the government’s right to regulate it.

“No rights are absolute,” Mr. Camillo said. “I’m certainly a strong supporter of the Second Amendment but times change and evolve and you have to go with them.”

He later added, “We can certainly respect all our rights and all our amendments, the Second Amendment included. In fact I think it makes it stronger when we have good, common sense regulations. Our main thing is to respect our rights but also, in my opinion, insure the safety of the populace.”

Mr. Camillo was not able to take part in much of the debate in Hartford over gun control due to illness, but said he spoke to constituents, law enforcement and security experts to add to his own knowledge. He praised the recent laws passed by the state to strengthen the existing assault bans weapon but said he believed that the background checks do not go far enough.

“The background checks were critical and I felt they should have been expanded to really address the Newtown situation,” Mr. Camillo said. “When someone applies for a gun, I don’t think it’s enough just to look at that application. You have to see who they live with and if there’s someone in the house with a lot of mental health issues or an extensive arrest record of serious crimes. I was very happy to see the background checks, but unfortunately this wasn’t put in there.”

Mr. Camillo stressed, though, that he wanted to avoid “unintended consequences” by denying people access to guns because of minor misdemeanors that were found in background checks. He cited a person who had the right to buy a gun denied because of a past arrest for throwing eggs, as well as a constituent who had his guns taken away because of an incident even though it wasn’t due a violent one.

“The laws we have shouldn’t be meant for people like that,” Mr. Camillo said.

The state also passed legislation limiting a magazine’s capacity to 10 bullets, something Mr. Camillo expressed some reluctance on, wondering whether it made more sense to have the clip size be 15 or 17 instead. He said conversations with law enforcement told him that the average person hits about a third of their shots and that it’s lower for handguns. To provide home defense when needed, Mr. Camillo said he felt the limit should have allowed for a few more bullets.

“You can imagine if your house is broken into and there’s a couple people with guns and it’s dark you want to at least be able to match what they have,” Mr. Camillo said.

He later added, “I would love to see that right always remain for people, if they chose to, be able to defend themselves and be able to do it in a reasonable way.”

Mr. Himes has been a supporter of limiting clip size since the shooting in Arizona in 2011 that nearly killed his friend and colleague Gabrielle Giffords and left others, including a young girl, dead. He has co-sponsored federal legislation to limit the capacity to 10 bullets and while he said be believed that was adequate he was “happy to enter into the debate” about the right number because “that is the nature and course of our political system.”

Having a gun in the home was an area where the two men personally differed. While Mr. Himes said he wouldn’t want to stand in the way of people legally obtaining a weapon for the home, he disputed the idea it makes anyone safer.

“I’m willing to concede, against all the evidence, that you should have the right to keep a weapon for personal protection,” Mr. Himes said. “I don’t concede that happily. The fact is, and this is not a debatable fact, there are dozens of studies out there that show if you make a decision to keep a weapon in your home you have made a much more dangerous home where it is much more likely that you our your spouse or one of your children or your neighbors will die with the gun you have chosen to keep. Hear me clearly on this. If you want to do that I believe that’s your right but it’s not a debatable proposition that if you have a gun in the home you are safer.”

Both Mr. Himes and Mr. Camillo agreed that there was the need for more attention on mental health to help find disturbed and alienated people who need treatment before another incident like the one in Newtown happens.

“We have to think not just about gun safety but about how well is our system of mental health care serving people,” Mr. Himes said. “That’s probably the government and our hospitals and our community groups and what not, but it’s also us as parents and neighbors. Each and every one of us knows somebody who is a little alienated and depressed and spends a little too much time in the basement and doesn’t have friends. Some tiny minority of those people are actually going to do violence, but I think we have an obligation as a society to be more embracing and helpful to those people.”

Mr. Camillo added, “I’m disappointed we didn’t deal more with mental health. That is a huge issue… Access to mental health services is so important.”

Mr. Himes said that “the horror that is Newtown is not over” because every day there are new reports of gun violence in the country, not just from mass shootings, but from gang violence, suicide and accidents like news this week of a four-year-old accidentally shooting his father with a gun he found. He said he was proud of the laws passed in Connecticut and expressed disappointment the Congress hadn’t followed suit, while also noting that filibuster efforts in the U.S. Senate meant that not even a bipartisan gun control bill that had 54 votes for and 46 against couldn’t pass.

Despite that, he said he was optimistic about the future and reminded people that even after an assassination attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan left him wounded, it still took six years to get the Brady Bill passed to limit assault weapons.

“I think we’re eventually going to get the regulation right,” Mr. Himes said. “Connecticut got it right and I think it will take years, but we are going to get it.”


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