In Newtown, calls for more gun control

January 17, 2013

David Connors, the father of 8-year-old triplets who survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, has listened attentively to all sides of the debate in Washington about regulating guns in American society. But among those closest to the killing at his children’s school, he says, there is a singular view emerging, he said.

“Things are really raw here,” said Connors, a 40-year-old engineer. “The attitude towards the issue of guns here is probably more slanted towards ‘We don’t want to see them — and we don’t want them anywhere near our kids.’ ”

With the Senate headed toward a major debate next week on President Obama’s proposals to curb gun violence, calls from Newtown for stricter gun laws have grown louder.

“I certainly understand the need for guns for hunting and sports and also for self-defense in certain cases,” said Kevin Fitzgerald, 53, an employee at Ricoh Americas who heads Newtown’s volunteer disaster response corps. “But there is a reason why people are not allowed to carry bazookas or missiles in their back yards. Why can’t that be the same case for an assault rifle?”

A Newtown fourth-grader identified as Ava S. fired off a letter to congressional leaders, urging them to impose new restrictions on gun use. Her words were read into the record by the town’s school superintendent, Janet Robinson, who traveled to Washington this week to address lawmakers at a hearing of the Congressional House Steering and Policy Committee.

Majority sees Connecticut shooting as societal problem

But the town where a massacre galvanized action also is a place with a deep tradition of gun ownership and a long history of gun manufacturing. It is the headquarters of the national firearms trade group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), which represents 8,000 manufacturers, retailers, shooting ranges and sportsmen.

Locals have a long tradition of hunting the woods for deer and fowl.

“When I moved here, this was an even more rural town than you see today, a place where you had many hunters,” said Rob Cox, a columnist with Reuters Views, who owns two shotguns he uses for hunting fowl and has a 14-year-old son who received a marksmanship badge from the National Rifle Association.

“I remember playing army or playing whatever in the woods and my parents would always say wear some bright colors, wear an orange hat, whistle while you walk through the woods so you would not be mistaken for a deer or a pheasant.”

Cox reacted favorably to President Obama’s proposals for reducing gun violence and said we have to “approach the issues with an open mind.”

But many gun proponents went on the defensive.

From Las Vegas, where the NSSF is hosting its annual SHOT (Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade) show, the world’s largest gun show, the group’s president spoke for the first time since a gunman killed 20 children and six adults before killing himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School a month ago.

“The state of our industry is, in a word, misunderstood,” Stephen L. Sanetti said Wednesday in a speech at the Venetian Hotel. “We all must recognize that those who don’t agree with us share in our desire to rid the world of such monstrous acts; and they must recognize that we are not evildoers.”

While Connors and other parents have expressed an aversion to guns, many have welcomed, if not demanded, the presence of armed security guards at Sandy Hook Elementary’s new school building and other local schools.

In her Wednesday testimony, Robinson told congressional leaders that she valued the role of guns in American society, saying she had “come from a military family” and “respected guns.”

Robinson said that she did not know whether the schools would continue to station armed guards at school over the long term. But the school superintendent said an idea to place guns in the hands of teachers who have little weapons training is “not even logical.”

“How many children could get injured with inexperienced ­elementary teachers walking around with guns?” she asked. The broader challenge, she said, is: “How do I protect our students without creating fortresses?”

In an effort to find common cause, Lee Shull, 45, Rob Cox and several other Newtown residents have founded a local nonprofit group, Sandy Hook Promise, to help the community work on preventing future gun tragedies. Shull said many in the community are still reeling from the pain and struggling to translate their grief into action.

“The reactions are all over the place; there’s anger, there’s fear,” said Lee.

The group, which includes parents and friends of Sandy Hook students and Democrats, Republicans, independents and gun owners, welcomed “the broad focus” of Obama’s plans. But the group has stopped short of taking a firm stance on gun control, in part out of concern that it could lead to a polarizing debate.

Instead, it is working on educating its members on the basics of gun law, the constitutional protections, responsible gun use and mental health issues.

Shull said that he had invited a Yale University constitutional law professor to give the group’s members a crash course on the Second Amendment. He also has consulted a police officer from Upstate New York on safe gun use.

Shull said the group doesn’t want to “jump in and polarize people with a position,” at least not yet. “We want to bring people together for an open and honest discussion to really listen to one another. This is not just about what the government can do. Everybody should feel a responsibility and obligation to decide ‘what can I do, what can you do, what can we do collectively to make our nation a safer place.’ ”

Fitzgerald said the group has its work cut out.

He recalled that in September, the Newtown legislative council sought to push through an ordinance to ban target shooting on private property without the permission of the town’s police chief. The ordinance, which faced intense opposition from local gun enthusiasts, was shelved.

“If we can’t have an ordinance passed [locally], you have to ask yourself,” he said, “what are we really going to be able to do on a national level with regard to making things safe?”

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