After gun tragedies, Connecticut and Arizona take different paths


A note is left behind on a memorial for the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. (MORGAN SPIEHS/Morgan Spiehs )

Four months after the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers banned at least 115 types of semiautomatic firearms.

Four months after the shooting of a congresswoman and a federal judge in Arizona, lawmakers there named the Colt Army Action Revolver the official state gun.

The similarities in the attacks were striking: Both were carried out by heavily armed young men with histories of mental illness. But in their aftermaths, the states took radically different ­approaches to gun violence.

The differences reflect the wide divide separating Americans, with long-established gun cultures colliding with efforts to restrict gun ownership. Connecticut muscled through one of the most comprehensive packages of gun laws in the country. Arizona moved to make it easier to carry guns in public.

After both shootings, background checks and weapons bans consumed political debates across the country. Families of victims pleaded for stronger regulation, while gun rights advocates stocked up on ammunition, fearing impending restrictions.

On Jan. 8, 2011, a gunman opened fire at this Tucson, Ariz., Safeway, killing six and wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 11 others. (MORGAN SPIEHS/Morgan Spiehs )

“Everybody’s lives changed. Not just the people that were shot and their loved ones, but everybody,” said Seth Wilson, whose grandfather Dorwan Stoddard was killed in the Arizona shooting, in the parking lot of a Safeway.

Mary Ann Jacob, a library aide at Sandy Hook Elementary School who locked herself and 18 children in a storage closet during the Newtown shooting, said she and the other survivors now live “in a different world.”

“We all thought . . .we’d stop hearing about it. Now 18 months later, I realize, and now everybody’s realizing, that’s never going to happen,” Jacob said.

Shortly after the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting, Connecticut’s six ­highest-ranked lawmakers decided to write new lawsinstead of allowing committees to take control.

Then-House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, a Democrat trained with an M16 in the Army, took a month to “brush up” on everything related to gun policy. He took a tour of the nearby Colt factory; aides went to a local firearms dealer to run through a background check in person.

“It was a painstaking process, but I think our reaction was indicative of the types of things that Connecticut needed to do after the tragedy,” he said.

The six men — four Democrats, two Republicans — discussed gun policy almost exclusively for weeks. They debated whether features such as thumbholes and pistol grips would qualify a gun as an assault weapon. They made calls to state police officers and held up photographs of different types of guns and asked each other, “Would this be one? Would that be one?”

In addition to the millions of dollars budgeted for mental health and school security, the final bill banned 115 types of semiautomatic weapons and all magazines larger than 10 rounds.

Although Connecticut’s legislation passed with bipartisan support, the 48 Republicans who opposed it said they largely were ignored.

State Rep. Craig Miner, who earned an A grade from the National Rifle Association, said most of his Democratic colleagues had already made up their minds when he was appointed the Republican leader of a statewide committee on safer gun policy.

When he read the final bill — packed with new restrictions that he opposed — he said he never felt more out of place in his 23 years as an elected official.

“There wasn’t one piece of that bill that I couldn’t find something to point to and think, ‘Boy, oh boy, I must be on Mars,’ ” Miner said.

Lawmakers in Arizona, the No. 1 state for gun owners according to Guns & Ammo magazine, have introduced more than 100 firearms-related bills since 2011.

Most had a similar aim: self-defense and security.

One bill would have required armed guards and metal detectors at the entrance of public buildings that ban guns. Each of the three times it cleared the legislature, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it as an unfunded mandate for cities and towns.

Arizona State Rep. John Kavanagh, a life member of the grass-roots Arizona Citizens Defense League, champions such legislation.

“More guns in the hands of law-abiding responsible people, especially people who have taken concealed weapons courses and are qualified, means more safety,” Kavanagh said. “And certainly more protection against the criminals and lunatics.”

Arizona’s House minority leader, Chad Campbell, has tried to expand background checks. Each measure has failed, along with almost every other gun-control bill proposed since the Tucson shooting on Jan. 8, 2011.

“I think there’s just a profound sense of disappointment that nothing ever came out of that tragedy,” Campbell said.

Daniel Hernandez Jr. crossed paths with gunman Jared Loughner as he ran through the havoc toward his boss, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), who was choking on her own blood.

Hernandez, a new intern, administered aid to Giffords until first responders arrived. He is credited with saving her life.

For two years after the shooting that killed six, Hernandez didn’t talk about guns. A native Arizonan who grew up hunting, he didn’t want to politicize the contentious issue.

That changed when he was elected as a board member of the Sunnyside Unified School District, and Adam Lanza killed 26 at Sandy Hook.

“I had a new responsibility,” Hernandez said. “I wasn’t just Daniel the individual, I was responsible for 17,000 students and 2,000 staff members.”

Hernandez immediately teamed with New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns and helped develop an informal coalition of about 40 groups working toward gun violence prevention in the state.

This year, they met with the governor’s office, the first gun-control group to do so in 14 years, he said.

“For whatever reason, we have put guns on this very different level,” Hernandez said. “It’s a sacred thing to many people, which forbids us from having reasonable conversations.”

He believes change is coming. Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly passed a bill to increase the mental health records that Arizona submits to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Hernandez has made the two-hour drive to the State Capitol 39 times to push for other measures, most notably universal background checks.

“This is not a flash in the pan,” Hernandez said, “and unfortunately our network of survivors is growing every single day.”

When classes resumed at Sandy Hook, Mary Ann Jacob began carrying keys to the library around her neck and locking the doors — always.

Eighteen months later, she still panics when the lights flicker or someone upstairs moves a desk. But, she said, Sandy Hook Elementary is working toward a new normal — one in which mothers coordinate their children’s play dates around therapy sessions and no one likes sitting with their backs to the door.

She thinks often about the hundreds of children throughout Newtown whose brains were “rewired” during the shooting.

“It’s going to get to the point where everyone we know in our generation is going to know someone who was affected by gun violence,” said Jacob, whose two boys also attended the school.

To change what she described as a “culture of violence,” Jacob and 30 of her colleagues launched the Sandy Hook Educators for Gun Sense this summer. Its focus is trifold: mental health, gun safety and family involvement.

For Yvonne Cech, a media specialist at the school and a mother, that means discouraging violent video games and movies and urging parents to ask about guns in homes where their children play.

“It’s not just gun legislation and it’s not just mental health. None of these things are going to work on their own,” Cech said. “Change for me means a reduction of violence, however that happens.”

Brittany Elena Morris contributed to this report, which was produced by Carnegie-Knight News21, a national investigative reporting project by journalism students headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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