Mon, Dec 09, 2013 - Page 9 News List

A year after Newtown shooting, US rift over gun laws deepens

Tensions over gun control in a small Georgia town reflect a paralyzed and divided nationwide public debate over the rights of citizens to own firearms

By Adam Geller  /  AP

“A small percentage of the people make a lot of the noise,” he said.

“I talked to people who had not owned a gun in 50 years and didn’t intend to get one and I talked to people who had always had a gun forever,” he added. “That’s why I didn’t want the city of Nelson to be blown out of proportion, like we’re some sort of an armed camp.”

The harshness of the debate is evident in Newtown, itself, where a conversation about guns began six months before the school shooting, when some local residents complained to police about prolonged gunfire by target shooters.

The Police Commission crafted an ordinance restricting hours and locations of target shooting. Yet at a hearing in August last year, about 60 gun owners criticized the proposal as a breach of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which protects the right of citizens to own firearms. Only one resident, Jim Ondak, rose to support it.

Then came 20-year-old Adam Lanza’s rampage at Sandy Hook elementary. The grief it unleashed changed everything.

Now there was incentive “to say you need to stand up and do the right thing about this,” said Eric Poupon, who formed Parents for a Safer Newtown to push for limits on target shooting.

That led to a tense new round of hearings. Gun owners described target shooting as a prized tradition in their rural community. Opponents noted that Newtown is no longer so rural; the population has grown 45 percent since 1980.

Finally, council members approved a law in September limiting target shooting to four hours and requiring gun owners to call police beforehand.

Poupon said he hears fewer shots and thinks maybe people have decided on their own to reign in shooting. However, people on both sides are troubled by what the debate revealed.

The intensity of gun owners’ opposition and the pressure they put on local officials “was a real wakeup call,” Ondak’s wife, Andrea, said.

Meanwhile, Dave Barzetti, a welder and target shooter, said the debate reflects troubling changes. The father of two feels the target shooting ordinance is part of a big-government intrusion on life that makes him uncomfortable.

His wife, Carla, said a large tax hike, compounded by the divide over guns, convinced them they no longer belong. In September, they bought property in Tennessee.

Recalling Newtown as it was, before last Dec. 14, she starts to cry.

“It still had people who were nice to each other, working together and no one was talking about guns,” she said. “Then [the attack] happened and it became either you have guns or you don’t have guns.”

Just 10 days after the Newtown attack, a lesser-known shooting shattered the peace in the lakeside town of Webster, New York.

An ex-con, William Spengler, set his own house on fire and sprayed gunfire at responding firefighters, killing two of them. The blaze destroyed seven homes.

For Paul Libera, grieving was not enough. The fire had destroyed a house where each summer, he had gathered kids for a water skiing camp.

In January, he spent US$600 for a large sign, lettered in red, and planted it in the frozen ground next door to the site of the ambush.

“How many deaths will it take ‘til we know too many people have died?” the sign said.

Libera said he was “raised with guns under my bed and in my closet and with bird shot coming out of the food we were eating.” He went to college on the money his state-trooper dad earned in the gun-and-fishing-tackle store he ran on the side.

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