A year ago, the massacre of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, confronted Americans with vexing questions about guns and violence. The collective search for answers has given way to ambivalence and deepened division.
Today, half of Americans say the country needs stricter gun laws — down since spiking in December last year, but higher than two years ago. And the ranks of those who want easier access to guns — though far fewer than those who support expanded gun control — are now at their highest level since the Gallup polling firm began asking the question in 1990.
Even when the public found some common ground, widely supporting expanded background checks for gun purchases, lawmakers could not agree. US President Barack Obama failed to push through proposals for the wider checks and a ban on military-style rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
There have been more tragedies since the Dec. 14 shooting last year at Sandy Hook Elementary school. The worst was in September when a lone gunman killed 13 people at the Washington Navy Yard. Obama wondered then if such shootings had lost the power to shock: “I fear there is a creeping resignation that these tragedies are just somehow the way it is, that this is somehow the new normal.”
Yet beneath the paralyzed politics of gun control, striking discord remains in US towns and neighborhoods. Americans have not forgotten or become numb. They just cannot bridge the divide between those who insist stricter firearms laws are the only solution and those who view gun ownership as a basic right enshrined in the US Constitution, crucial not just for hunting, but for self-protection.
The small town of Nelson, Georgia, was an unlikely flashpoint. With 1,300 people, it has so little crime that officials have debated whether it needs a full-time police officer.
Then retired accountant Bill McNiff suggested to councilman Duane Cronic that the town should have a law requiring everyone to own a gun. McNiff said the ordinance declared values ignored by gun control advocates in the US’ big cities.
Council members unanimously approved, thrusting the town into the national spotlight.
It did not last. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the country’s most prominent pro-gun control groups, sued the town in support of Lamar Kellett, the law’s most vocal critic. The council revised the measure in August to make clear that gun ownership is a choice and that a requirement could not be enforced.
However, that has not resolved tensions on a wooded bend where McNiff and Kellett live two doors apart and Cronic lives in the house between them.
“I chat with him and we see our neighbors, there’s conversation,” McNiff said of Kellett. “Or, as I’m prone to say, he’s an idiot, so I just put up with him.”
He said gun control advocates just do not understand the point of view of someone who might need a gun because they “have 55 acres [22 hectares] and occasionally a coyote walks through.”
Critics “looked at [Nelson’s law] from their ideological point of view, which is that they’re anti-gun. They didn’t look at it from the point of view that we wanted to prevent the government” from taking away people’s guns.
Asked about his neighbor, Kellett declines to use McNiff’s name or give credence to his argument. He said the outcome of the dispute did little to reshape a debate that leaves many people cowed into keeping quiet.