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Boys’ Deaths Add Urgency to Conn. Gun Debate

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By MICHAEL MELIA, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The family of two young boys killed in an apparent-murder suicide — and state police — said Thursday they want to know why the boys’ grandmother, with a history of mental health problems, had access to the revolver used in the shootings.

The shooting has added urgency to a legislative review of access to guns that is already under way in Connecticut, where a troubled 20-year-old man gunned down 26 people, including 20 first-graders, on the other side of the state at a Newtown school on Dec. 14.

The two boys’ grandmother, 47-year-old Debra Denison, was supposed to take them from a day care to a birthday party Tuesday but instead drove to a nearby lake where she and the children were found shot to death after a frantic search. Police said the gun had been taken from her home, and one relative said it apparently belonged to Denison’s husband.

“It was in the house, which is hard to believe,” said Marcia White, a paternal great-grandmother of the boys, who said Denison’s struggles with mental health were well known to the family.

State Sen. Toni Harp, a member of the General Assembly task force charged with formulating a response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, said there appeared to be striking parallels to the Newtown tragedy, including the slaying of children and gun violence by people without permits to carry weapons.

She said her working group on mental health has endorsed changing the gun-permitting process to ask about people in the household with mental illness and lay out responsibilities for owners to keep guns away from them.

“The problem is, often family members have guns in their home that are not secure, and they assume people in the home will not violate their property and use them,” said Harp, a Democrat. “But we hear more and more about people taking guns that don’t belong to them and doing great harm with them.”

Harp said there is concern about stigmatizing people with behavioral health issues, who experts say are no more violent that others, and the legislature has to walk a fine line in taking steps to prevent future tragedies.

Several family members said Denison, the boys’ maternal grandmother, had long struggled with her mental health, although she seemed to be doing better in recent months. Donna Connors, a paternal grandmother, told The Day of New London that Denison had bipolar disorder and had attempted suicide in the past.

Denison also had a 13-year-year-old son who wasn’t with her Tuesday afternoon and was apparently unharmed. In Denison’s suicide note, she said in part that God was watching over him Tuesday, White said. What exactly she meant, and her motive for the killings, is still unclear.

Denison also has a 27-year-old son, Christopher Allen, who is prison serving a 32-year sentence for felony murder. Allen stabbed a man to death on a boat in Mystic in 2008 as he and a co-defendant boarded the vessel to steal money and drugs.

After leaving a suicide note, Denison drove alone Tuesday to the day care center in North Stonington, where she picked up 2-year-old Alton Perry and 6-month-old Ashton Perry. It was Alton’s birthday.

The staff at the day care said Denison was on the list of people authorized to collect the children, and nothing seemed amiss — the grandmother was friendly and talkative as she loaded the children in her van. The bodies of Denison and the children were found several hours later.

A spokeswoman for the state police, Sgt. Donna Tadiello, said the investigation will look at who purchased the revolver, how Denison obtained it and her history of mental illness.

“Everything about that weapon, we’ll try to uncover as much information as possible,” Tadiello said.

Police have not released the contents of the suicide note, and White said the family does not have any clues to what triggered the violence.

“Only God knows the answer to that,” she said.

A community vigil is planned Friday night in North Stonington to support the boys’ parents, Jeremy and Brenda Perry, who are described by friends in the rural southeastern Connecticut town as friendly and hard-working. Jeremy is a landscaper, but his work has been limited because of severe injuries sustained a year ago in a four-wheeler accident.

Currently, anybody involuntary committed for mental health reasons is put into a federal database that is supposed to be checked by gun sellers, but there are no Connecticut laws prohibiting those who have been voluntarily committed or the relatives of those with mental illness from owning weapons, according to Jim Siemianowski, a spokesman for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a Republican, said he expects lawmakers will make some kind of recommendations concerning the possession of guns when someone in the home has mental health issues. But he said it will not be easy to choose an appropriate course.

“Some have suggested if there’s someone in your household who is being treated for mental disorders, does that mean if you go see a therapist once? Just think of the examples. You’re a child having trouble in school and your parents want you to go see a counselor, does that then mean the parents may not be able to own a gun or possess one?” McKinney said. “Those are very difficult issues.”

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Associated Press writers Susan Haigh, Dave Collins and Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this report.

Associated Press

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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