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A Deeper Divide: The Gun Control Debate After Newtown

Personal Weapon ControlGun ControlInterior PolicyLaws and LegislationShootingsFirearms

Last fall, residents of Newtown were having a debate that could have taken place almost anywhere in America.

It was an argument over guns. The issue was fairly simple: Should amateur shooting ranges be subject to inspection and approval by the police chief? On one side were residents concerned about noise and wary of unregulated shooting. On the other were those who believe gun rights spring from essential American freedoms.

Today, Newtown is like no place in America. The killing of 20 children and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School devastated the small community. It also launched an examination of the culture, safety and legality of guns that, while occurring across the nation, is unfolding in Newtown and Connecticut with unmatched urgency.

After the Dec. 14 massacre, some declared the killings would be a tipping point that would reshape the debate over firearms. But the gun divide is like no other in America, and despite pleas to find common ground, passionate forces on both sides of that divide are marshaled for a high-stakes battle to define the legacy of Sandy Hook.

The Town

It's been quiet the past couple months on the amateur shooting range Scott Ostrosky set up at the back of his 22-acre property on Newtown's southern border.

But in less-tragic times, friends and relatives would gather at the range and test their skills, firing at soda bottles and PVC pipe and, yes, the occasional helium tank or explosives-filled toilet bowl.

"Shooting's fun," Ostrosky said, sitting inside the rustic house he built on the property. "Nothing more than a harmless, fun, adrenaline-pumped hobby. That's all it is."

But in Newtown, it's really more than that. Even before Dec. 14, Ostrosky's range was a stark symbol of the cultural divide over the role of guns in this community that is at once rural and suburban.

Following the Sandy Hook killings, The Courant, in collaboration with the PBS show "Frontline," spent more than a month exploring that cultural gulf in Newtown and beyond, conducting scores of interviews in places as varied as a Las Vegas gun shop, the living room of a family whose son died inside the school, and the large tract of land where Ostrosky sets up targets for his friends.

In recent years, neighbors have complained repeatedly to police about the sound of gunfire and explosives from Ostrosky's property, with one woman calling the cops to say her house was literally shaking from the blasts. Scores of other complaints about outdoor shooting have been filed from every corner of the town.

The protests haven't swayed Ostrosky, who notes that there are two formal gun clubs within earshot of his and his neighbors' homes. Just like when buying a car, he says, "outsiders" considering Newtown need to test-drive the community to learn what they're in for.

"It's a rural farming community and everybody used to hunt, shoot," he said. "So it's part of the deal."

Ostrosky, laid-back and bearded, shares little more than a zip code with town residents who pressed last year for new restrictions on outdoor target shooting.

"If you need rules and regulations for how a carnival is run at the church, it only seems appropriate that you would have rules and regulations for how a shooting range is run when you're firing weapons and blowing things up," said Joel Faxon, a police commissioner who drafted the ordinance.

Faxon said he didn't consider the proposed ordinance to be controversial, and the bipartisan police commission endorsed it unanimously. But when the proposal came up for a public hearing, gun enthusiasts lined up to oppose it. So many people turned out to object that town officials had to move one of the hearings to the high school auditorium.

Brian O'Connor, who owns four pistols and three rifles, said he target shoots only a couple times a year at a friend's house. But he spoke at the public hearing to express his view that the ordinance was an overreach for the rural town and that guns and shooting are part of the heritage of America.

"I just said that gunfire reminds me of freedom," O'Connor said later at his home. "If it's a beautiful autumn day and I'm hearing that, it's just almost like this feeling that we live in a great country. We have the freedom to do that, because if you look historically at the countries where you can't even own weapons, those aren't usually countries where the people are very free."

Other opponents – more than 100 in all – said they had fought in wars for the freedom to shoot and that the ordinance, which would have required outdoor ranges to be inspected and approved by the police chief, violated their constitutional rights.

"The response was overwhelmingly against it," said Faxon, who was stunned by the depth and magnitude of the objections. "People were brought in from all over the place to come and proclaim their Second Amendment rights were being violated."

Faxon, a lawyer, said he found that particularly perplexing.

"The Second Amendment has nothing to do with shooting ranges. It doesn't say the right to have a shooting range shall not be infringed," he said, "It says you can bear arms. It doesn't say that you can indiscriminately shoot or blow things up wherever you want. It's scary to me that people actually think that."

But even if the ordinance didn't raise constitutional issues, it did reveal a split in town between those who saw the proposal as a routine noise ordinance and those who saw it as threatening fundamental rights and freedoms.

Carla Barzetti, who lives in Newtown with husband Dave, two children, four dogs, two rabbits, and a menagerie of chickens, roosters, geese and a huge pet turkey, said she has held a gun four times in her life, and prefers to stay in the house when her husband skeet-shoots on their property. But she spoke out against the ordinance.

"It wasn't an issue of people worried for their safety. It was contentment, and that's what I was speaking out against," she said.

"We have to share the world and it's a free country," she said. "And my point was that if we take away every activity that annoys someone else, then the only thing we are going to be left with is going to work and watching television."

Faxon, who owns deer-hunting rifles, said he did consider the ordinance a safety issue, and said the proposal wouldn't have banned target shooting, but merely set time-of-day limits and authorized police to inspect a range and declare it safe.

Dave Barzetti said he notifies the police when he plans to shoot skeet on his property, but said he still bristles at giving the police chief the authority to shut down a range.

"Eliminating that is just eliminating more of my freedom," he said. "What's the end game? Because you chip away a little bit each day and pretty soon at the end of the day, you don't have any more freedom left."

Newtown, with a population of about 28,000, is the state's fifth-largest town by area, and has many vast residential properties that are home to hunting and target shooting. But the number of housing units has more than doubled in the past 40 years, and as the population and density has grown, so has the clash over gunfire.

Robert Hutchinson, a book editor who works from home in Newtown, said he hears gunshots from three sides of his property. He keeps a pair of foam earplugs in an old film canister by his computer.

"On the weekends, the semiautomatic fire is semi-continuous throughout the day," he said, pulling up a satellite map of his property and pointing to the multiple sources of gunfire.

He says the earplugs help. "On a Sunday, if I'm trying to work and the gunfire is blaring, I can easily shut it out," he said. "But it does make me and my neighbors quite queasy that there are bullets flying around."

Hutchinson, who wears a green bracelet with the message "Newtown Strong – Never Forget – 12.14.12," said he sees the skirmish over the shooting-range ordinance as a microcosm of the larger national debate over guns, and an illustration of the deep divide on the issue in town.

"The strength of the opposition to the amendment that was proposed by the police chief and the board of police commissioners was not brought in from out of town," he said. "They are local, and they represent a very strong and committed segment of the town population."

The shooting range ordinance was sent back to the drawing board after the heavy opposition, but it is being revived. If there are new public hearings, Faxon suspects opponents will return with the same arguments. But they won't be alone.

"I'll tell you that there will be a very large contingent of people who are going to say [the opponents] are crazy because they don't know what they're talking about," he said.

"If in our town, after what happened on Dec. 14th, a safety ordinance about where people can shoot guns is not something that can be passed, it would be shocking to me," he said. "Because maybe we have to do this in baby steps, but safety first now. Safety first."

After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the gun clubs near Scott Ostrosky's house enacted a temporary moratorium on shooting, saying the sound of gunfire might be traumatic for Newtown's schoolchildren. Ostrosky followed suit.

But then, on Feb. 3, Ostrosky heard the crack of a rifle shot from the nearby 300-acre Fairfield County Fish & Game Club. And it made him smile.

"I was very happy yesterday to hear guns and know that life was getting back to normal," Ostrosky said the following day. "Because that's a very big gun club, and all responsible guys. They go over there and they shoot and it's just part of this neighborhood and I missed it."

The Mobilized

After her 9-year-old daughter and five others were killed while waiting to meet U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store two years ago, Roxanna Green kept clear of the political spotlight, focusing her energy on a foundation in her daughter's name that built playgrounds and stocked libraries.

But as she saw other families shattered by mass gun violence – at a movie theater in Colorado, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin – Green found a broader voice, appearing on national news shows, meeting with politicians in Washington and New York, and speaking out about guns.

"After it happened to me two years ago, I was hoping and praying it would never, never happen again," Green said. "But look what's happened."

Although Green found a mission, she did not find concrete success, leaving her frustrated that the national grief over the murder of her daughter did not propel changes she believes will reduce gun violence.

But today, after Sandy Hook, Green is both heartbroken and energized. Like many other gun control advocates, she says she sees the Dec. 14 shootings as a tipping point in the debate.

"I'm very confident that this time, this is it. It has to be now," Green said last month during a visit to Connecticut to meet with families of those killed in Newtown.

"I mean, it's times 20. One child two years ago; now we're talking about 26, 27 innocent lives," Green said. "I'm very, very confident that Congress is going to do something now, because the entire country is depending on them. They want change. They want some kind of plan."

For the first time in decades, gun control advocates sense they have momentum and the upper hand in their efforts to restrict what they see as the deadliest weapons, including the semiautomatic rifle Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook. Millions of dollars are pouring in to existing gun control groups, and dozens of new groups are popping up, with plans for rallies and marches and other grass roots efforts to create an organized political force to take on the large and powerful National Rifle Association.

Many of the newly minted activists call Newtown home.

"During past shootings, I've been devastated and appalled by them, but I never took action," said Po Murray, who sent her four children to Sandy Hook Elementary and who can see Lanza's house from hers. "On Dec. 14th, I promised myself that I am going to take action and work as hard as I can to prevent this type of tragedy from happening to other families and parents and communities across the country."

Murray has become active in Sandy Hook Promise – the most prominent of the local groups that sprang up after the shootings – and recently attended the inaugural meeting of the Newtown Action Alliance, which has taken a stronger stand than Sandy Hook Promise on gun control.

"We're hopeful that our efforts here will help level the playing field in terms of the influence that the special interests have," said David Ackert, who leads the alliance. "There's a huge silent majority out there that I believe is easily motivated not to be silent any more if we give them the tools."

Ackert, who works in marketing, said Newtown has a "brand equity" that gives it a powerful voice in the debate over guns. He said his group was formed in the days after Dec. 14, but became more active after he heard about plans for a march on Washington last month to address gun violence.

"The light bulb went on," he said. "A connection was made in my head that Newtown needs to be on the national stage." He helped arrange buses that brought 100 people to the nation's capital, and local residents led the parade.

Supporters of gun control are mobilizing in Newtown even as the community reels from the savagery of the attack.

Mark and Jackie Barden are terrified they will forget a single story about the short life of their son Daniel.

Neil Heslin replays the last morning of his son's life over and over. "I miss Jesse something terrible," he says. "That was the worst day of my life."

Richard Marotto is haunted by the killer's decision to skip his 6-year-old daughter's classroom. "They were the very first room. Very first room from where the glass was broken. Very first room," he says.

Police union President Scott Ruszczyk knows some of his colleagues will never be able to return to law enforcement work. "Nothing can ever prepare you for this," he said. "Some of them are struggling more than others. And some of them have completely shut it out and aren't processing it."

No one has been spared. Some women stopped wearing mascara because they are frequently crying. Others can't bear to go to the grocery store and look into the faces of friends and strangers.

Julia Faxon, a freshman at Newtown High School, says she wishes Lanza had targeted her building instead.

"At least if he went to the high school, he would be shooting people that knew what a gun was," she said, her words dissolving in sobs. "They have no idea what's happening because they're 6 years old."

Her father, Joel Faxon, the police commissioner, tries to console her.

"It's OK," he says, stroking her hair.

"It's not," Julia replies.

Newtown's new activists say it is that pain that compels them to action.

"Frankly, I'm embarrassed I wasn't mobilized by what had already happened, and it's too bad it took something like this to happen to my community," said Rob Cox, one of the founders of Sandy Hook Promise. "It has to be a tipping point, because if 20 beautiful children, who are not coming off the school bus, is not enough to get us to do something to change, then we're lost."

While there are numerous proposals under discussion in Washington and Hartford, gun control advocates generally agree on three major reforms: A ban on military-style semiautomatic weapons, a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines and universal background checks for gun purchases.

"Immediately, I would like to see the weapon that was used, banned from society," said Miranda Pacchiana, whose three children attended Sandy Hook Elementary. "I don't think civilians need it. I don't think it was made for that and I believe that if Adam Lanza didn't have that weapon, the tragedy would not be as severe as it was."

Pacchiana repeats a familiar refrain among gun control advocates, saying she supports the Second Amendment and would oppose a ban on all weapons, but that no sportsman needs a military-style weapon.

"There's absolutely no reason that we need to have weapons like this available," she said. "I don't understand why we need killing machines that are so efficient, when they're so dangerous to our population. It's just not a civilized way to live, and our country is better than this."

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., supports a renewed federal assault-weapons ban, and he too sees Sandy Hook as a turning point in the debate.

"I think what is possible politically changed a month ago today," he said at a Sandy Hook Promise event on the one-month anniversary of the shootings. "The president is transformed. Members of Congress – Republicans and Democrats – are transformed. And I think we have a moment in time where what was unrealistic a month ago is now realistic and certainly possible."

Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Redfield Ghawi was killed in the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., last July, said she too believes the shootings at Sandy Hook will compel action in a way that past tragedies – including the massacre that took her daughter – have not.

The difference: "Children. Babies. Innocence," she said during a visit to Newtown last month to console families.

Murray, who passes the Lanza house each time she leaves her own, said many of those new to the gun control fight are driven by a burning commitment to rescue their town's reputation, and honor those who died.

"We live in Newtown," she said. "The world is watching us right now. And we have an obligation to stand up and say: Those kids and those teachers did not die in vain, because we are going to take this moment to try to make a safer world."

The Steadfast

Parents at Sandy Hook Elementary School consistently talk about the school's warmth and professionalism, describing a building with committed administrators and caring teachers. But Richard Giannettino, whose four children attended the school, always saw something more.

"From the time we moved there and they started going there, I looked at that school – and I looked at all the other schools in the area – as soft targets," Giannettino said.

"I've been a competitive shooter and hunter for 50 years and I look at those things, and they are soft targets. No guns. No-gun zones in schools," he said. "It's ridiculous."

And that is why, in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 shootings, Giannettino believes the best way to prevent another Sandy Hook is to put guns in the hands of educators. To that end, Giannettino, who owns Shooters Pistol Range in New Milford, has issued a standing offer to train any Connecticut teacher in the proper use of firearms.

"I firmly believe that the teachers and the administrators and the staff of the schools are the first line of defense," he said. "And they should be armed if they want to be."

The radically different responses proposed by Connecticut legislators and members of Congress – including banning certain semiautomatic rifles and limiting the size of ammunition magazines – would not only fail to prevent the next school shooting, Giannettino said, they would make citizens more vulnerable to violence, trample on the Constitution and potentially open the door to a tyrannical government.

Giannettino's passionate objection to gun control measures is shared by thousands of state residents who have rallied at the state Capitol, lined up to testify at legislative hearings and swelled the ranks of state gun groups such as the Connecticut Citizens Defense League and Connecticut Carry. Also on board are a good portion of the more than 4 million dues-paying members of the National Rifle Association, and the roughly 20 million Americans who call themselves NRA members.

Gun control advocates have described the Sandy Hook shootings as a tipping point that overnight created an army of passionate activists committed to enacting new laws that would restrict civilian access to certain weapons. But if they believed the shootings would simultaneously soften the views of gun enthusiasts who have consistently opposed new gun-control measures, they appear to be mistaken.

Gary Liljengren, a Newtown resident and member of the Fairfield County Fish & Game Club, said he was deeply shaken by the Sandy Hook shootings. But the longtime hunter said the tragedy did not diminish his belief in the right of law-abiding citizens to own the weapons of their choice.

"I can't tell you how many times I've cried. I'm crying right now talking about it," he said of the shootings. "But I'm still pro-guns."

Where gun control activists see a push to honor the memory of those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary, gun rights advocates see exploitation of a tragedy and an unprecedented assault on their rights.

Is anyone surprised that gun enthusiasts have no plans to give in without a fight?

"People need to realize that we do feel under attack. And we plan to defend ourselves," said Rich Burgess, president of Connecticut Carry.

Burgess said he shares the nation's grief over the deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary. But he said gun control efforts are emotional reactions that haven't worked in the past. He said he favors improvements in mental health care, armed guards in schools, and increased ownership of guns by trained, law-abiding citizens.

"We tried it their way. We tried an assault weapons ban. We tried a mag ban," Burgess said, citing the 1994 federal ban that expired a decade later. "All it did then was make law-abiding people criminals. And I think that once again, law-abiding citizens are made criminals and it's not going to be effective at doing anything."

It is a consistent refrain among pro-gun advocates. Guns are inanimate objects, they say, made dangerous only in the hands of a criminal. And criminals, they say, won't obey the new restrictions.

"So basically you're saying only the cops and the criminals can have guns," said Chris Bartocci, an expert on military rifles and a former Colt firearms employee. "If you're in between, you're at either one's mercy. And that's not what this country is about."

Many, but not all, gun advocates make a similar argument with respect to high-capacity magazines, saying a ban will weaken the capabilities of law-abiding shooters without affecting criminals who won't obey the new law.

"If I've got two drugged-up felons coming in my front door with M4s, I don't want to sit there and say, 'wait a minute, I have to change a magazine,' " said John Beidler, treasurer of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League. "I find it absolutely horrible that certain people think they are so knowledgeable that they can determine what I need for my personal safety."

A vocal contingent of gun enthusiasts are Second Amendment fundamentalists, saying the right to bear arms is critical to guard against a despotic government, a view that has gained popularity since the election of President Barack Obama.

But even those who don't reach that conclusion are often skeptical of the motives of anti-gun politicians, and their passion is fueled in part by a persistent belief that some legislators ultimately want to eliminate access to all guns. They say acquiescing on a ban on assault weapons would lead to future laws aimed at all semiautomatic rifles, and then all shotguns, and eventually, all handguns.

"The next thing you know, we'll be defending ourselves with rocks," Beidler said.

Some politicians make no effort to hide their dislike of guns, saying that in a nation with 300 million firearms – and an outsized number of gun homicides compared to other countries – there would be less gun violence if there were simply fewer guns.

But even that suggestion is typically rejected by pro-gun advocates, who say those intent on misusing guns will find a way to be armed, no matter how many guns are in circulation.

"Let's suppose for a moment that we could magically make half the firearms in America disappear over night," said Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the NRA. "I think people that don't understand this issue well would reasonably and logically conclude that somehow that would have to have a positive impact on criminals obtaining and misusing guns.

"I think that's perfectly rational, logical – and exactly wrong."

The Industry

In the spring of 1989, just months after a drifter shot up an elementary school playground in California and killed five children, legendary gunmaker Bill Ruger Sr. made a bold proposal to Congress that to this day makes him a traitor to some pro-gun advocates.

Fearful that Washington was prepared to outlaw certain rifles it deemed to be assault weapons, Ruger offered an alternative to quell public outcry over gun violence: "a simple, complete and unequivocal ban on large capacity magazines."

Congress took him up on the offer. And then went ahead and passed an assault weapons ban, too.

Among the Sturm, Ruger executives who developed Bill Ruger's proposal nearly a quarter century ago was Steve Sanetti, who today runs the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade group for the entire firearms industry.

Sanetti, whose offices are in Newtown, less than two miles from Sandy Hook Elementary, again finds himself up against carnage at an elementary school and public pressure for politicians to address gun violence, including calls for a ban on high-capacity magazines.

But he says this time, he won't be following his mentor's footsteps.

"Unfortunately, I think it shows the bad faith of the people we were dealing with," Sanetti said recently in his first lengthy interview since the shooting in Newtown. "You give people who are truly anti-gun an inch, and they'll take a mile."

Before Dec. 14, the National Shooting Sports Foundation stayed mostly in the shadows. The sign outside its Newtown headquarters includes only its initials, and many locals had no idea their town was home to a trade group representing every major gun manufacturer and 8,000 smaller firearms-related businesses.

For most in Newtown and beyond, the National Rifle Association is the public face of gun interests – and the group willing to engage in bruising, high-stakes political battles.

The NSSF, with corporate interests at stake, took a more button-down approach. The group sponsors an annual "Congressional Fly-In" that brings executives from the industry to Capitol Hill, and it occasionally sends representatives to testify on proposed legislation in Connecticut, delivering an unabashedly economic message: gun control laws might cost Connecticut jobs.

There are no strident slogans on the organization's website, no references to "cold, dead hands," no overt attacks on Obama. And most of the site is focused on hunting and target shooting, with minimal references to the use of guns for self-protection – other than tips on safely storing weapons in the home. Through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, the group has distributed 35 million gun locks over the past dozen years.

It is a well-cultivated image of a responsible, centuries-old industry. But that does not mean the NSSF has no fight in it.

In response to a spate of new gun control bills in the Connecticut legislature, the NSSF's government-relations unit released an uncharacteristically harsh "Action Alert" to its email subscribers several weeks ago.

"Legislators in Hartford are in the process of destroying your Second Amendment rights by exploiting recent tragedies," read the alert, under the banner "Immediate Action Needed."

And while Sanetti avoids that sort of fiery language, he is passionate in defending sales of his industry's products.

The Sandy Hook shootings, he said, were primarily a consequence of Nancy Lanza's failure to keep her weapons out of the hands of her troubled son. He said the fault ends there, and no blame should be placed on the weapon Adam Lanza used.

"Millions and millions of law-abiding Americans use semiautomatic firearms with detachable magazines of varying capacities, and millions and millions of them every day don't do a thing wrong," he said. "You can't say that these guns bring out the worst in people. They're guns. They're neutral objects."

Sanetti, fit and energetic, began shooting at age 12 with a BB gun and graduated to duck hunting and target shooting with his father, which formed a lifelong bond. He was president of the rifle and pistol club at Virginia Military Institute, and hunted squirrel and other small game to keep his food costs down during law school.

He said the debate over guns after Newtown reflects the long-standing split on the issue across the country. He said he understands why urban dwellers, who equate gun use with crime or police activity, are mistrustful of firearms.

"There is a great divide in the United States," he said. "If you think of the word 'gun,' and you think 'bad,' or you think of the word 'gun,' and you think 'pretty good' – there's a divide. There's a natural divide there."

But he said gun control advocates hurt their cause by disparaging all guns and gun users, including those who use military-style rifles.

"You take these people who use these guns for legitimate purposes, and you tell them: 'You're nothing but a murderer, because that's the only reason why anybody would own one of these guns: to kill people.' How are you going to get these people to cooperate?" Sanetti said. "They really really, to-the-core, alienate people who, if we are to have a national consensus on this issue, need to be involved."

Still, Sanetti knew the industry would be in the cross hairs after the Sandy Hook shootings. He learned of the attack while sitting in an airport, waiting for a flight to Europe. When a newscaster reported that children had been shot dead in Newtown, he canceled his flight and raced back to the office. He said the industry is not opposed to improving background checks, but will fight any proposal to restrict sales.

"We feel that we've done nothing wrong; that we are a responsible industry making responsible products for law-abiding citizens," Sanetti said. "But people react emotionally. And I think people make bad decisions when they are angry, when they are fearful and when they act in haste."

"And I think that this situation had the making of all three."

The Divide

Neil Heslin, halting and emotionally broken, leaned into a microphone at the Legislative Office Building last month to tell a hushed public hearing about his son Jesse - his buddy, his best friend - who told him, "I love you, Dad," at exactly 9:04 a.m. on Dec. 14, and was gunned down in his classroom 30 minutes later.

"I ask if there's anybody in this room that can give me one reason," Heslin said in a slow, quiet voice, "or challenge this question: Why anybody in this room needs to have one of these assault-style weapons or military weapons or high-capacity clips."

At first, there was silence. Heslin looked over his shoulder at the crowd, made up mostly of gun supporters.

"Not one person can answer that question."

At with that, several gun enthusiasts couldn't help themselves.

"The Second Amendment!" several called out. "Shall not be infringed." "Shall not infringe our rights," others added, before the hearing chairman threatened to clear the room.

"We're all entitled to our own opinion," Heslin said in a small voice once the room was quiet. "And I respect their opinions and their thoughts. But I wish they'd respect mine and give it a little bit of thought and realize that it could have been their child that was in that school that day."

In the days after the Sandy Hook shootings, members of a stunned community and a grieving nation called for a renewed discussion on gun violence, with the goal of fostering a respectful dialogue aimed at finding common ground to protect little children.

But on this exceptionally contentious battleground, finding even a common language is difficult.

Guns are a fault line in the American experience, cleaving the nation into camps with fundamentally different world views. One sees firearms – particularly aggressively designed rifles that look like military weapons – as killing machines that should not permitted, much less revered, in a civilized society. The other sees guns as the ultimate symbol of the frontier ideals of defiance, individualism and freedom.

Both sides believe they reside in the rational middle and are waiting for their opponents to adopt reason and join them in the center.

"I think that people who think that we're on the fringe, are the people that are on the fringe," said Burgess, the president of Connecticut Carry.

Gun rights activists instantly tune out gun control supporters who proclaim allegiance to the Second Amendment – while simultaneously expressing support for banning guns or ammunition that "no one needs."

"People talk about, 'well, at least we're letting you have this,' " said Bartocci, the expert on military rifles. "It's not for you to tell me what I can and can't do. I'm not your subject. I am a citizen of this country."

Gun control advocates, meanwhile, roll their eyes at hypothetical tales of multiple burglars with heavy-duty firepower that can only be matched with powerful firearms and high-capacity magazines.

"Do these people walk around their house all day long with an assault weapon hanging off their belt?" asked Mary Ann Jacob, a library clerk at Sandy Hook Elementary who helped hide more than a dozen children during the attack. "I couldn't imagine spending my whole life being so fearful. I would feel badly for them if that's how they live their life."

Jacob said those on all sides of the debate "need to be reasonable and be willing to compromise." But on the more contentious issues in the gun debate, that's not likely to happen.

"What I think is reasonable, we're already doing," said Giannettino, who offered firearms training to teachers. "I think we've already reached the middle ground. I don't think there is anything left to compromise on."

Robert Chambers, registered agent for the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, attended a legislative hearing on gun control with four other officers of the group. Asked if any saw a path to compromise, all five quickly said no.

"I mean, what compromise would there be? The gun owners in this state have been compromising from the get go," Chambers said. "And I say compromising – they've been giving and other people have been taking. We've got nothing back. A compromise is a give and take. If all they do is take, where's the compromise?"

That does not mean there will be no change. Advocates on both sides say new laws are possible requiring background checks for gun-show and other private sales, rather than only for those purchases made at licensed firearms dealers.

"Most gun owners, I think, support background checks. The line in the sand gets drawn when you talk about banning weapons, confiscating weapons and doing what they're doing right now," said Bartocci.

So any changes beyond that line in the sand are likely to come as the result of a possible shift in the balance of power, not because of a meeting of the minds.

Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, sees hints of that shift. "There's a lot of legislators right now that have traditionally been firearms-friendly and helpful to the cause of the Second Amendment, or at least not a hindrance, and now they're looking over their shoulder," Wilson said.

Others aren't so sure. Former congressman Toby Moffett, a veteran of gun control battles who is serving as a volunteer advocate for new gun laws at the federal level, says he saw a softening in the resolve of lawmakers just weeks after the shootings.

"Congressmen and Senators, who vowed to support tough measures, return from their first trip home post-Newtown to say they are now 'studying' the issue," Moffett wrote in the Huffington Post.

Paul Barrett, a columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine and an expert on the gun industry, says that shift away from reform may say more about representative democracy than it does about the maneuverings of the gun lobby.

"If you're a Republican and you want to get re-elected, it's not because the NRA has tricked you into following their agenda," Barrett said. "It's because the NRA is more-or-less popular with your constituents."

Back in Newtown, where two months have passed since the shootings made the community a town like no other, some residents last week were making signs for the Valentine's Day "March for Change" in Hartford that served as a rally for "common-sense gun laws."

Across the philosophical divide, other residents were celebrating the reopening of local gun ranges, and once again enjoying the feel of a rifle stock against their shoulders and the thrill of squinting through a scope at a far-away bull's-eye. If the call goes out again to campaign against new gun laws, many gun enthusiasts say they're ready to attend common-sense rallies of their own.

"I think that the town is united in its grief and its horror – but remains as divided as it ever was about the appropriate, rational response to reducing the risk of that horror ever being repeated," said Hutchinson, the book editor and Newtown resident.

"And in that respect," he said, "Newtown is no different than the rest of the country."

Sarah Childress, Mary Robertson and John Marks of "Frontline" contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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