Aaron Cox walks methodically along an abandoned railroad bed that runs through his wooded property in Newtown, rifle nestled under his arm, snow crunching underfoot as he scans the trees for movement.
The flick of a tail might indicate a squirrel has decided to venture out on this snowy morning, and if one does, it will - almost guaranteed - end up later in the day as squirrel pot pie, a family favorite. Even with a small target, Cox rarely misses.
"This is how I connect with God," Cox says, walking past towering oak and maple and cypress trees in the sparsely developed northern tip of town. "This is my version of going to church."
Cox's family has hunted these woods for three generations, providing much of the protein his family eats, and he has every intention of passing the tradition on to his 6-year-old daughter. Lydia occasionally accompanies him on hunts, and participates in a solemn ritual after a kill.
"Every deer that I've shot, she goes out with me and we sit down next to the deer, and we put our hands on it. And we thank the deer for food," Cox said. "She understands beginning to end where our food comes from, and that is very important."
But since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, Cox, 39, worries about the trajectory of that tradition, about how his daughter will be perceived, about how he fits into the divisive debate over guns in his beloved town.
Cox feels stuck in the middle – a hunter whose support for the Second Amendment is authentic and deeply rooted, but who also wants to explore solutions that might reduce gun violence. Aiming for the middle, he says, will cost him friendships.
"This is probably the most awkward position ever to be put in," Cox said
"I have friends who are devout NRA members, who agree 100-percent with the NRA and believe that the Second Amendment gives everybody the right to own any firearm. Vice versa, I have friends here in town who believe that all firearms should be confiscated and destroyed. And I'm somewhere in the middle," he said. "I feel like there's people screaming on both sides of me who aren't willing to compromise on an issue that needs to be compromised on, because there's not a simple answer and we need to talk about it without screaming."
Cox understands the sensitivity over guns, in Newtown and beyond, since the shootings. Avielle Richman, one of the children killed, had gone to pre-school with Lydia, and played at princess-and-pirate parties at Cox's house. After Cox told his daughter that a bad man had shot people at Sandy Hook Elementary, her first words were: "Is Avielle OK?"
Cox opposes mandatory registration of firearms, seeing it as a potential precursor to confiscation. But he favors stricter background checks and he thinks a ban on 30-round ammunition magazines might slow down a mass shooter, who in a frenzied state, might need four or five seconds to swap out a smaller-capacity magazine.
"I think it would save lives," he said, before quickly adding: "And there's going to be a bunch of people upset that I said that. I will lose friends. I'm sure of it."
The squirrels are laying low as snow falls in Newtown, and Cox, brushing the flakes from his long hair and long beard, heads back to the house his grandparents built in 1934. He's lived there since he was 13, save a period of time he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
In his living room, the head of large buck is mounted above the fireplace, and the stone mantle is covered with dozens of jars of pickled vegetables, all grown on the property. Other deer heads adorn the walls, along with the skins of red foxes. He knows some in town would find the scene squeamish, and he knows he's among a dwindling portion of the town that hunts.
His father, Gene, 70, recalls his high school years in Newtown, when he and his friends would drive to school with rifles and shotguns in the back seat to hunt with after school got out.
"Try that today and you end up in jail," Gene Cox said. "Different time, different people, different attitudes."
"Yeah, and you can't really be sad about it," Aaron Cox added. "Times are different."
But Aaron is sad, thinking the tragedy will blunt a heritage that has run through his property for 80 years.
"The horrible thing is it's something I hold so near and dear to my heart. It's something that's so much a part of my life that I want so badly to pass on to my daughter," he said. "But yet I know for a fact that if she went into school and she said 'oh, today I got to shoot my father's gun,' she'd go down to the principal's office because she used the word gun in school.
"And I get it, they're hyper-sensitive right now, but she's going to be ostracized because she enjoys shooting and it's not fair."
Still, Cox clings to a faith that out of the horror of the school shootings, something positive will emerge.
"The only way that you can get up every morning and get your daughter dressed and send her to school is the hope that something good comes out of Sandy Hook," he said. "Because if you don't have that hope, it's hard just to keep going."Copyright © 2015, CT Now