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Newtown's firearms tradition clashes with gun control push

By McClatchy Newspapers

NEWTOWN, Conn. -- When the wind blows a certain way across the tree-topped hills, Gary Bennett can stand in his yard and hear echoes of gunfire from his hunting club five miles away. The sound comforts him.

"It's a huge tradition here," said Bennett, a retired electrician and former president of the club, which helped defeat a proposal to tighten Newtown, Conn.'s gun ordinances in September. "I'd rather see more gun clubs come to town, training people with the use of firearms so that everyone's doing it safely."

Anguished families are still burying the 20 children and six women who were shot to death by a lone gunman Dec. 14 just after the morning Pledge of Allegiance at Sandy Hook Elementary School. However, a surprising local undercurrent has emerged: Many gun owners here say the slaughter has sharpened their view that guns alone aren't the problem.

"I wish that, at that school, somebody was armed," said Kuthair Habboush, a software engineer who keeps a weapon at home for protection. "If a security guard or a teacher or a principal had been armed, somebody could have taken the [killer] out" before his lethal rampage.

Firearms are deep in the culture of this corner of New England. Two of America's most storied weapons manufacturers, Colt and Winchester, were based in Connecticut. Some historians say the West was won in Hartford -- the state capital and birthplace of the Colt revolvers favored by lawmen and outlaws alike beginning in the 1830s.

Today, dozens of gun dealers, gun instructors, gun repair shops and shooting ranges do a brisk business in Newtown and nearby cities and towns. Private hunting clubs are widespread, many with waiting lists for membership.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a powerful lobbying group for gun retailers, has its headquarters across the highway from Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"You'd be surprised," said Sean Eldridge, owner of Parker Gunsmithing, a gun repair shop in nearby Danbury, referring to his customers. "They're regular people and they have an arsenal in their basement."

That was the case with Nancy Lanza, a wealthy divorced mother who enjoyed jazz, craft beer and frequent visits to shooting ranges. She kept at least five weapons, all legally registered to her, in the large Colonial-style house she shared with her 20-year-old son, Adam.

Early on Dec. 14, authorities say, Adam Lanza shot his mother repeatedly in the head with her .22-caliber rifle as she lay in bed. He then drove to the elementary school, shot his way in and fired dozens of rounds into two first-grade classes using her Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle. Some of the children were shot 11 times. He then shot and killed himself with one of his mother's pistols.

Far from the wealthy coastal communities that serve as bedroom suburbs and weekend resorts for New York City, 70 miles south, Newtown was a farming and hunting area for generations.

Dave Chapdelaine, a resident for more than 40 years, recalled walking down the middle of his rural road with a shotgun in the 1970s, taking aim through the trees at rabbits, squirrels and pheasants. Every year he and three friends held a game cookout, and sold rabbit fur to a company in New York.

Now houses are nestled in those woods, and Chapdelaine, a school bus driver, heads north to Vermont to hunt. He's among many in Newtown who question the wisdom of stiffer gun control laws, which President Barack Obama called for Wednesday at the White House.

"To me, a firearm -- 99 percent of the time, when it's unloaded -- it's a beautiful work of art," Chapdelaine said. "It's not meant to kill people. It's meant to protect people and help you provide for your family. But you have to keep them out of the hands of the loonies."

Over the last decade or so, the town's rustic character changed with the arrival of upscale families who commute to New York or other cities, and who see guns as a nuisance, if not a threat.

"There are people that have had their families here for several generations, love this town for what it is and what it was, and they want to preserve that bucolic rural setting," said Andy Sachs, a real estate agent and member of a town commission that supervises police. "And there's a new guard who's moved in the past 15 years that want to see more growth opportunities, more commercial opportunities, more vibrant suburban living. That's a struggle."

One sign of the divide was a sharp debate this fall over the commission's proposals to curtail hours for target shooting, and to require police approval for shooting on private property, after a growing number of noise complaints.

Dozens of members of the Fairfield County Fish & Game Protective Association, a 300-acre private hunting club on Newtown's southern outskirts, showed up at a town meeting in September to defend gun rights. Bowing to the outcry, the police commission shelved the proposal.

"It's an issue anywhere you have people moving in from big cities into a rural area and they have hard time dealing with what goes on here and want to make all these changes," said Bennett, the former hunting club president.

"We have to educate these people about what we do and why we do it," he added. "They should have no fears that our activities are going to impact them any way. You can change this gun law and that gun law, and it's not going to change things like (the school shooting) from happening."

Still, in a nod to the town's tragedy, the club has halted all hunting and shooting on its property for two weeks "so there wouldn't be the sound of gunfire while a funeral was going on," Bennett said.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the lobbying group near the school, hasn't commented publicly but posted a brief statement on its website saying that it was "deeply shaken and saddened" by the killings.


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