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Federal lawsuit filed against DEEP Commissioner Dykes over handguns in state parks

A lawsuit has been filed in Federal Court over Connecticut’s ban on carrying firearms in state parks by residents who hold a pistol permit by Cheshire-based attorney David J. Nastri, who has filed the action against the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), which manages Connecticut’s state park system.

“Connecticut’s prohibition is blatantly unconstitutional and defies common sense. Every year, it welcomes hundreds, if not thousands, of hunters into state parks and forests, and it maintains four recreational shooting ranges in state parks and forests,” said Attorney Cameron Atkinson of Atkinson Law, who is representing Nastri in the suit. “It is nonsensical for the DEEP to claim that it is protecting public safety by prohibiting thousands of law-abiding and exemplary citizens such as Nastri from carrying handguns for self-defense but giving recreational shooters and hunters free reign to bring much more powerful firearms into state parks and forests.”

Nastri is a U.S. Army combat veteran who has held a Connecticut pistol permit for 30 years, according to Atkinson Law. The lawsuit was filed against DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes in her official capacity.

According to a 2020 report by the Office of Legislative Research, a person may only carry a handgun in a state park for the purposes of hunting small game, like rabbits and squirrel, or for use at one of the firing ranges located on state property and can only do so within designated areas and times. For hunting purposes, handguns are limited to a .22 caliber rimfire cartridge. The penalty for violation carries a $75 fine and possible eviction from the park for up to one year.

Handgun carrying rules for parks becomes a bit more complicated when it comes to National Parks, including the Appalachian trail, where the State of Connecticut has authority over certain parts of the trail that cross into state parks.

The federal government allows for the carry of handguns under local, state and federal law in federal parks. However, when federal land intersects with state parks, the state prohibition remains in effect. “According to DEEP, there are property boundary markers on state park and forest lands, as well as the Appalachian Trail. A person is responsible for knowing his or her location and which law applies.”

A bill introduced by Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, and Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, was taken up by the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee in 2018 and received extensive public comment during the public hearing.

E. Jonathan Hardy, an executive member of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League and certified firearms instructor, testified that the bill was “a long time coming.”

“State lands are not where we should be telling citizens where they are allowed to exercise constitutionally guaranteed rights,” Hard wrote in testimony. “There is simply no logical reason why a properly permitted person, with all their background checks and training shouldn’t be allowed to do so on state lands.”

However, DEEP’s legislative liaison, Lee Sawyer, testified that allowing firearms in state parks where 9 million people visit each year would be a “recipe for disaster.”

“Most of these visitors come during the summer months, and the vast majority of those summer visitors come for our beaches and swimming. Millions of these visitors are on the beach each year, often in beach attire,” Sawyer wrote. “Adding firearms to this picture is a recipe for disaster. We do not have secure lockers or other facilities to safely store firearms, so there will be a large number of firearms left in bags on beaches, or left in motor vehicles, or carried on the person while wearing a bathing suit. The opportunity for confusion and concern among the public will be significant.”

The bill ultimately passed out of the Judiciary Committee by a narrow 21-20 margin but was never taken up for a vote in either chamber.

According to the court filing, in 2022 Nastri requested the DEEP update its handgun regulations in state parks, citing the case U.S. Supreme Court case, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, in which the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that New York’s law requiring those seeking a pistol permit must show proper cause to be unconstitutional. Nastri never received a reply.

Nastri is seeking a declaratory judgment and injunction against Connecticut’s regulations on handguns in state parks, along with attorneys’ fees and any other relief the court deems just.

“We are extremely confident that the federal courts faithfully applying the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions will agree with us,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson Law is a “full service criminal defense and civil rights firm based in Connecticut,” and describes themselves as “Gunslingers, bulldogs, and shrewd tacticians.” Atkinson has filed two other lawsuits against Connecticut’s gun laws since the firm announced its opening in 2022.

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Marc E. Fitch, Senior Investigative Reporter

Marc E. Fitch

Marc worked as an investigative reporter for Yankee Institute and was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in the field of mental health is the author of several books and novels, along with numerous freelance reporting jobs and publications. Marc has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Western Connecticut State University.

1 Comment

  1. James Arnold
    January 18, 2023 @ 2:15 pm

    The opportunity for confusion and concern among the public is reading Lee Sawyer comments. My wife and I grew up along the shoreline, after getting married we eventually moved to Northeast CT. We have 4 daughters who we took to the beach and state parks all the time while growing up. We then bought a beach cottage where your daughters and 11 grandchildren would come and spent as much time as possible in the summer. Never once did I see someone at the beach with a handgun on their bathing suit nor has anyone gone through our bags or cars. “There is simply no logical reason why a properly permitted person, with all their background checks and training shouldn’t be allowed to do so on state lands.” It seems to me based and Mr Sawyer’s comments that we need more Park Rangers looking out for the thieves that are stealing from our bags and breaking into our cars. It’s time for these government officials to stop harassing the law abiding citizens and do something about the gangs and criminals shooting and killings citizens in our large cities.

    Reply

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