A Deeper Divide: The Gun Control Debate After Newtown

Signs at Gun Appreciation Day, left, and March For Change rallies represent two sides of the gun control legislation debate. (COURANT FILE PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES)

Last fall, residents of Newtown were having a debate that could have taken place almost anywhere in America.

It was an argument over guns. The issue was fairly simple: Should amateur shooting ranges be subject to inspection and approval by the police chief? On one side were residents concerned about noise and wary of unregulated shooting. On the other were those who believe gun rights spring from essential American freedoms.

Today, Newtown is like no place in America. The killing of 20 children and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School devastated the small community. It also launched an examination of the culture, safety and legality of guns that, while occurring across the nation, is unfolding in Newtown and Connecticut with unmatched urgency.

After the Dec. 14 massacre, some declared the killings would be a tipping point that would reshape the debate over firearms. But the gun divide is like no other in America, and despite pleas to find common ground, passionate forces on both sides of that divide are marshaled for a high-stakes battle to define the legacy of Sandy Hook.

The Town

It's been quiet the past couple months on the amateur shooting range Scott Ostrosky set up at the back of his 22-acre property on Newtown's southern border.

But in less-tragic times, friends and relatives would gather at the range and test their skills, firing at soda bottles and PVC pipe and, yes, the occasional helium tank or explosives-filled toilet bowl.

"Shooting's fun," Ostrosky said, sitting inside the rustic house he built on the property. "Nothing more than a harmless, fun, adrenaline-pumped hobby. That's all it is."

But in Newtown, it's really more than that. Even before Dec. 14, Ostrosky's range was a stark symbol of the cultural divide over the role of guns in this community that is at once rural and suburban.

Following the Sandy Hook killings, The Courant, in collaboration with the PBS show "Frontline," spent more than a month exploring that cultural gulf in Newtown and beyond, conducting scores of interviews in places as varied as a Las Vegas gun shop, the living room of a family whose son died inside the school, and the large tract of land where Ostrosky sets up targets for his friends.

In recent years, neighbors have complained repeatedly to police about the sound of gunfire and explosives from Ostrosky's property, with one woman calling the cops to say her house was literally shaking from the blasts. Scores of other complaints about outdoor shooting have been filed from every corner of the town.

The protests haven't swayed Ostrosky, who notes that there are two formal gun clubs within earshot of his and his neighbors' homes. Just like when buying a car, he says, "outsiders" considering Newtown need to test-drive the community to learn what they're in for.

"It's a rural farming community and everybody used to hunt, shoot," he said. "So it's part of the deal."

Ostrosky, laid-back and bearded, shares little more than a zip code with town residents who pressed last year for new restrictions on outdoor target shooting.

"If you need rules and regulations for how a carnival is run at the church, it only seems appropriate that you would have rules and regulations for how a shooting range is run when you're firing weapons and blowing things up," said Joel Faxon, a police commissioner who drafted the ordinance.

Faxon said he didn't consider the proposed ordinance to be controversial, and the bipartisan police commission endorsed it unanimously. But when the proposal came up for a public hearing, gun enthusiasts lined up to oppose it. So many people turned out to object that town officials had to move one of the hearings to the high school auditorium.

Brian O'Connor, who owns four pistols and three rifles, said he target shoots only a couple times a year at a friend's house. But he spoke at the public hearing to express his view that the ordinance was an overreach for the rural town and that guns and shooting are part of the heritage of America.

"I just said that gunfire reminds me of freedom," O'Connor said later at his home. "If it's a beautiful autumn day and I'm hearing that, it's just almost like this feeling that we live in a great country. We have the freedom to do that, because if you look historically at the countries where you can't even own weapons, those aren't usually countries where the people are very free."

Other opponents – more than 100 in all – said they had fought in wars for the freedom to shoot and that the ordinance, which would have required outdoor ranges to be inspected and approved by the police chief, violated their constitutional rights.

"The response was overwhelmingly against it," said Faxon, who was stunned by the depth and magnitude of the objections. "People were brought in from all over the place to come and proclaim their Second Amendment rights were being violated."