HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy urged Connecticut lawmakers Wednesday to work with him to prevent tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, saying gun rights and public safety must be balanced but "freedom is not a handgun on the hip of every teacher."
The Democrat said he believes the state and society must find better ways to respond to people with mental health needs, while striking a balance between respecting individual rights and the obligation to protect the public.
"And when it comes to preventing future acts of violence in our schools, let me say this: more guns are not the answer," Malloy told a joint session of the General Assembly during his State of the State address. "Freedom is not a handgun on the hip of every teacher, and security should not mean a guard posted outside every classroom."
Malloy said Wednesday that such measures are "not who we are in Connecticut" and it should not be "who we will allow ourselves to become."
The governor became emotional as he spoke about the teachers and a therapist who sacrificed their lives to protect students at Sandy Hook, apologizing after having to pause during the 26-minute televised address to gain his composure. His wife Cathy wiped back tears as she watched her husband.
The specter of the Dec. 14 massacre, which left 20 first graders and six staff dead, as well as the shooter and his mother, shadowed Wednesday's ceremonies at the state Capitol. With many lawmakers and officials wearing green and white ribbons representing Sandy Hook's school colors and with Newtown's first selectman and superintendent of schools in attendance, both Democratic and Republican leaders urged their colleagues to be respectful of one another and cooperative, especially in light of the tragic event that's focused the world's attention on Connecticut.
"Let's resolve as Democrats and Republicans to serve as a model here in Connecticut and lead our country in a new and better direction," said Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, who credited the "spirit of Sandy Hook" with inspiring battling lawmakers to set aside their partisanship last month and reach a budget-deficit fix, said lawmakers should carry forward that spirit and remember the tragedy over the coming months of the five-month-long legislative session.
"That could be our greatest tribute to those heroes and angels who sacrificed their life back in Newtown," he said. "That could be our greatest tribute, to respect each other's opinions, to be tolerant, to listen, to be patient, to be kind, to be giving."
Malloy has convened a task force to review state laws and policies affecting guns, mental health and school safety in the wake of Sandy Hook. It is scheduled to release preliminary recommendations in March. Meanwhile, members of the Democratic controlled legislature are already proposing changes such as bans on high-capacity magazines and a special sales tax on ammunition.
Legislative leaders from both parties planned to set up their own commission that will review possible legislation stemming from the shooting and come up with a possible package that could be considered in late February or early March, said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield.
Besides Sandy Hook-related issues, lawmakers also must tackle a new two-year budget. The first year, which is expected to be about $20 billion, is projected to be $1.2 billion short.
But Malloy said Wednesday that Connecticut already fixed "more than 90 percent of the problem" when it passed a two-year budget in 2011 that raised taxes, included labor concessions and cut spending.
"Anyone who tells you that the budget we passed two years ago didn't do its job, that it didn't make real change in how we approach our finances, is simply not telling the truth," Malloy said.
Republicans, who criticized Malloy and the majority Democrats for not cutting more spending to address what was the largest per-capital deficit in the nation, questioned the governor's statement, given the projected deficits and high unemployment figures.
"Anyone who believes we in the state of Connecticut are in a better place than we were two years ago, I'd like to hear why," Cafero said.
Still, Malloy warned that national inaction "hangs like a dark cloud over our budget," adding how many residents working in the state's defense industry are experiencing sleepless nights because of the prospect of federal budget cuts. He also called the slow pace of receiving federal aid following the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy "unacceptable."
"I say this not to demean any of our colleagues in Washington, but in the hope that we will better appreciate what we've accomplished here in Connecticut," said Malloy, predicting that state officials will "rise the occasion" and address the challenges this session.