Posted 3/5/12

Guns & Soybeans

Fake But Deadly?
Photo by Steve Kotchko

Each legislative session has a “focus” issue that dominates.  Last year it was Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy’s deficit-fighting state budget, this year it is his education reform package.

Yet every year other issues—sometimes odd ones—crop up, and the 2012 session is no different.  Last week, lawmakers held news conferences to push two unrelated and unusual proposals.  One bill would ban simulated weapons from school properties across Connecticut.  The other would require food products to carry special labels if they contain so-called GMOs, that are genetically modified organisms.

The gun bill is designed to prevent tragedy at schools around Connecticut.  In at least two other states, young people were shot by police who mistook realistic-looking “simus” or simulated guns for the real thing.  Here in Connecticut, tragedy was averted in Stonington, when two youths clashing with a “gun” heeded police demands to drop the simulated weapon before officers had to take   more drastic action.

Many of the simulated guns are frighteningly close in appearance to real handguns, including some models used by police.  During a news conference on the issue, there was unease on the faces of people in the room when an officer waved a fake gun or pointed it at the audience.  A gun in your face makes you nervous—even if you know it’s fake.  Imagine how a police officer feels.

South Windsor police chief Matthew Reed said police departments back the simulated guns restriction bill because they want to avoid the drama and tragedy that can occur if police are called to a school on a report of a student with a gun on the premises.

“What’s a police officer supposed to do (if confronted with a youth with a realistic-looking gun in hand)?,” asked Reed, “say ‘oh, it’s just a kid—he’s just a 17-year old—he wouldn’t shoot and kill anybody, would he?”  The chief concluded:  “I think recent events (high school shooting sprees) certainly show us different.”

Smith & Rep. Roy

Photo by Steve Kotchko

The Stonington incident ended safely because the students involved were fooling around and quickly obeyed an officer’s demand to drop the fake weapon involved.  However, it is conceivable that an angry and troubled youth could terrorize a school population with a fake gun—perhaps being disturbed enough to point the “gun” at police urging them to fire.  The term “suicide by cop” is an all too familiar occurrence.

Stonington police chief Darren Stewart was asked what an officer would do if a teen refused repeated demands to drop a weapon—real or fake.  “You proceed like it was a real gun—you don’t know what it is—and at that point in time, unfortunately, you’d have probably one of the toughest calls a police officer ever has to make—and that’s to use their firearm in the line of duty,”  he said.

Due to their realistic appearance, matched to popular handguns in the market, simulated weapons are supposed to have a red-colored plug in the hole of the gun’s muzzle as a way of revealing they are fake.  However, police say many users black out the red color or deface the plugs to boost the realism factor.  They said even if the plug is not tampered with, it could be difficult to see in bad light conditions or in the glare of the sun.

The simulated gun bill will include a penalty for tampering with the muzzle plug in addition to the penalty for bringing a simulated weapon onto school grounds.  Exact penalties for the offenses will be pinned down as the bill proceeds through the committee process.

The food-related bill on genetically modified organisms likely will prompt one of those modern-era environmental debates with one side warning of dire consequences from toxic products while the other side accuses its critics of claiming “the sky is falling” when there is no real danger.

Author Jeffrey Smith was brought to Connecticut by Rep. Richard Roy (D-Milford) to discuss GMOs.  Smith contends the biotech tactics with GMOs may be increasing the number of food allergies, and causing more serious consequences including infertility and organ damage.  Smith concedes the jury is still out in the public debate over GMOs, but said the proposed Connecticut legislation doesn’t ask for much.

He notes the bill simply mandates clear labels on all food products telling consumers the products contain GMOs.  “This bill does not require us to make the determination that GMOs are safe or unsafe,” said Smith.  “All it does is say we can give mothers the chance to make the determination of what they feed their infant.”

The food and chemical industries claim GMO critics have gone overboard, and that the products tied to GMO use including soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, sugar beets alfalfa, and others are safe.  The industries contend that GMO use helps plants naturally increase resistance to insects and therefore may help curb the amount of pesticides that get into the soil and water supply.

As for labeling, the food industry claims that formal labels about GMOs, a substance unfamiliar to most shoppers, may needlessly scare consumers, and in the process economically hurt everyone from farmers to food processors.

Roy knows he has a tough sell ahead for his GMO labeling bill.  Though similar measures are popular in Europe, no U.S. state has approved such a law.  While he touts bipartisan support for his bill, Roy conceded no major Democratic leaders have signed on, and his own past problems with Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy could diminish the bill’s chances.

The Milford lawmaker doesn’t shrink from a challenge.  He waged a seven-year battle to gain approval of his bill to ban drivers in Connecticut from using handheld cell phones before it finally passed.  However, Roy is retiring from the legislature after the 2012 session, and won’t be in the House if a multi-year campaign is needed to score a victory on GMO labeling.

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