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

Mon, Dec 09, 2013 - Page 9

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.

“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.

When Libera moved away for a time from upstate New York, he also left behind his father’s love for guns.

The photograph of the sign he erected was posted to a Facebook page honoring the firefighters. It drew more than 70 comments, many critical.

There were those who said the sign was “repulsive,” that it politicized the firefighters’ deaths. Officials told him the sign had to be removed because he lacked a permit; he took it down in the spring.

Meanwhile, signs sprouted in some yards in Webster demanding repeal of a new state gun control law pushed through by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the wake of the Newtown shooting.

The pro-gun response discouraged Libera. He was troubled when parents of some of the children he instructs, not knowing he was responsible for the sign, remarked that its message was so horrible they avoided driving by.

“I think they just want to shut it out and pretend it didn’t happen and hope it goes away,” he said.