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Connecticut lawmakers return to work and guns take center stage

By Edith Honan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - At the funeral of one of the 20 children gunned down at a Connecticut elementary school, a grieving mother grabbed state Senator Beth Bye by the shoulders and said: "You're going to do something, right?"

Bye and Nelba Márquez-Greene, whose daughter Ana, 6, was among the first graders shot dead with six staff members in the December 14 massacre, have known each other for years. Bye had asked the Marquez-Greene family how she could help and the answer was clear: Prevent this from ever happening again.

On Wednesday, nearly four weeks after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School reignited the national debate over gun control and mental health care, the Connecticut state legislature will begin its 2013 session and the Newtown tragedy is expected to loom large.

Bye, who represents West Hartford, has announced a package of bills to limit access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and require that all Connecticut firearms be registered by model and serial number.

The bills would also institute a 50 percent sales tax on the sale of ammunition and magazines, prohibit the purchase of ammunition over the Internet and limit the sale of ammunition to those with Connecticut firearms permits.

"I just feel a personal mandate," said Bye. "These parents have just lost their child and already they're advocating for something to happen. We're only going to have one opportunity in Connecticut to do something like this. I want to take this opportunity and make sure we do something significant."

While Connecticut is a Democratic state and has among the toughest gun control laws in the country, Bye's proposals are likely to meet tough opposition and are by no means assured of passage. Gun manufacturing has long been a local industry in the state and companies have used the threat of gun makers leaving the state to thwart major restrictions.

The proposals have been greeted with fierce opposition from gun rights groups, who say the restrictions would unfairly limit the rights of responsible gun owners and would do little if anything to prevent another mass shooting.

"All these gun bills really don't do anything to solve the problem of Newtown," said Robert Crook, head of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, which counts 35,000 members. "The person who did that had broken all of our gun laws."

Gunman Adam Lanza, 20, first shot his mother with a gun registered under her name and carried out the school shooting before turning the gun on himself.

GRASSROOTS MOMENTUM

More than any other recent mass shooting, the Newtown massacre has galvanized efforts to keep guns and ammunitions out of the hands of criminals.

In Washington, President Barack Obama convened a task force to search for ways to quell gun violence in the United States.

Maryland's Democratic Governor, Martin O'Malley, plans to introduce new gun restrictions, while in Virginia, House of Delegates Speaker William Howell, a Republican, has told local media the General Assembly is likely to review laws on restricting gun ownership for the mentally ill.

In Illinois, where in December a federal appeals court threw out a ban on the public possession of firearms, lawmakers have 180 days to draft and enact new laws relating to the possession of firearms in public.

Perhaps nowhere is the debate more emotional or personal than in Connecticut. While Democrats control the governor's mansion and both houses of the state legislature, recent efforts to curb gun rights have been defeated.

Adam Winkler, author of "Gunfight," a history of U.S. gun rights, said state gun control measures such as ammunitions taxes are of limited value because gun buyers can get around them by simply visiting neighboring states.

"What you need are federal gun control laws that include all states," said Winkler.

He said the gun control debate will come down to each side's ability to generate grassroots support.

Gun-control advocates have called a March on Washington for January 26, while gun-rights groups are planning a Gun Appreciation Day on January 19.

Mayors against Illegal Guns has launched a Demand A Plan campaign to require gun control measures such as universal background checks.

Nelba Márquez-Greene, who could not be reached for comment, has called for a change on a Facebook page set up to remember Ana: "I want to live in a better America - one where our leaders are working collaboratively for the good of the people and the protection of children. Please! No more! Ya basta!"

(Reporting by Edith Honan. Editing by Andre Grenon)

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