Lawmakers: Time Ran Out on Bill That Would Have Made Armed Drones Illegal
As four gunshots and the whir of helicopter rotors reverberate across the Internet, Connecticut law remains silent on the issue of weaponized drones.
A Clinton teen unleashed an international media firestorm after he posted a YouTube video of a “flying gun” that shot four rounds from atop a drone hovering in a wooded area. The video has since garnered 2.7 million views.
The gun is a semi-automatic handgun affixed to a homemade multi-rotor helicopter, according to the video posting.
The Associated Press reported that the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating whether 18-year-old Austin Haughwout broke a rule prohibiting the careless or reckless operation of a model aircraft.
In February, the FAA released regulations for commercial drones but did not address recreational use.
Clinton police said last week that it didn’t appear any state laws were broken. Some critics blame the state legislature for failing to act on new legislation to add the term “drone” to the state’s statutory lexicon and address governmental and civilian use of unmanned aircraft.
“There is some concern that drones can be used to remotely control weapons to intentionally harm persons or property with a drone,” the report said. “In the course of this study, the risks and dangers of drones being used to control weapons were deemed by stakeholders to far outweigh any potential benefits of allowing the public such a practice.”
The resulting bill would have made it a felony to remotely control a deadly weapon. It also would have required members of law enforcement to get a warrant in order to use a drone except in emergencies.
The measure went through a public hearing, several committees, and won unanimous approval in the Senate only to die at the doors of the House chamber on the final day of the 2015 regular legislative session last month.
David McGuire, Legislative and Policy Director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said the Clinton case has prompted the civil rights group to renew its call for drone regulation.
“We will push for drone regulations as soon as possible,” McGuire said in a statement. “While our principal concern remains government use of drones for surveillance there is an obvious need for comprehensive regulations. We’ve got to put a target on unregulated drones — now armed — buzzing around Connecticut’s skies.”
State Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, ranking member of the Program Review and Investigation Committee, said members have already expressed a commitment to revisiting the issue next session.
He said any successful bill will need to strike the right balance between the public’s right to privacy and the need for public safety.
Others invoke the right to bear arms as well.
Scott Wilson Sr., president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, said second amendment rights protect innovation as well as individuals.
“In this particular instance, the person in question is an engineering student. I would like to point out that many modern arms and other tools that our military uses were once conceived of and tested in private laboratories or on private property,” Wilson said.
The advocate for gun rights stressed that all firearms must be used with safety in mind and said that one can hope the firearm being tested in the video was fired in a safe direction with an appropriate backstop.
“If the drone with the handgun leaves the private property or the gun is fired recklessly, there are undoubtedly plenty of laws that address any safety concerns,” he said.
The Program Review and Investigations Committee looked into the applicability of existing statute in its report on how drones may be regulated. The report said it is already illegal in many circumstances to use a deadly weapon to commit a crime — and “using a drone to enable the use of the deadly weapon is generally not any different than using it directly without a drone’s involvement.”
And if a weapon on any drone were to be deemed illegal, that would be covered too — sort of. The problem is that proving possession becomes a murkier proposition when law enforcement and prosecutors must apply old laws to new technology.
For example, the report cites current statute that says the “presence of a machine gun in any room, boat or vehicle shall be presumptive evidence of the possession or use of the machine gun by each person occupying such room, boat or vehicle.” Assuming a drone can be considered a vehicle, it is still uncertain if the owner could be implicated since the law is based on the vehicle being occupied.
There’s also an existing statute prohibiting the remote use of firearms. The specific language only applies to remote hunting via computer software, however.
Kissel said passing a bill regulating drone use will require the committee to address the issue early in the session and with great urgency. This year’s legislation, he said, was the victim of the clock as time ran out on the session.
He said bills that are likely to result in a lot of debate — they’re called “talkers” in General Assembly parlance — are often passed over in favor of a slew of less controversial legislation.
“If a bill is a talker and we’re in the last week of session, it’s up to the Speaker and the president of the Senate as to which bills move and which ones don’t,” Kissel said.
Gabe Rosenberg, spokesman for House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said the bill passed the Senate too late in the session — with just one day to go and at the same time the General Assembly debated the state budget — to make it through the House as well.
“It’s not necessarily a comment on the bill,” Rosenberg said.
The bill was ready to be taken up by the Senate on April 29. They did so on June 2.
The 2015 legislative session convened Jan. 7 and adjourned June 3. A special session was held several weeks later to approve budget language and vote on several measures left over from the regular session.