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)

Parents at Sandy Hook Elementary School consistently talk about the school's warmth and professionalism, describing a building with committed administrators and caring teachers. But Richard Giannettino, whose four children attended the school, always saw something more.

"From the time we moved there and they started going there, I looked at that school – and I looked at all the other schools in the area – as soft targets," Giannettino said.

"I've been a competitive shooter and hunter for 50 years and I look at those things, and they are soft targets. No guns. No-gun zones in schools," he said. "It's ridiculous."

And that is why, in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 shootings, Giannettino believes the best way to prevent another Sandy Hook is to put guns in the hands of educators. To that end, Giannettino, who owns Shooters Pistol Range in New Milford, has issued a standing offer to train any Connecticut teacher in the proper use of firearms.

"I firmly believe that the teachers and the administrators and the staff of the schools are the first line of defense," he said. "And they should be armed if they want to be."

The radically different responses proposed by Connecticut legislators and members of Congress – including banning certain semiautomatic rifles and limiting the size of ammunition magazines – would not only fail to prevent the next school shooting, Giannettino said, they would make citizens more vulnerable to violence, trample on the Constitution and potentially open the door to a tyrannical government.

Giannettino's passionate objection to gun control measures is shared by thousands of state residents who have rallied at the state Capitol, lined up to testify at legislative hearings and swelled the ranks of state gun groups such as the Connecticut Citizens Defense League and Connecticut Carry. Also on board are a good portion of the more than 4 million dues-paying members of the National Rifle Association, and the roughly 20 million Americans who call themselves NRA members.

Gun control advocates have described the Sandy Hook shootings as a tipping point that overnight created an army of passionate activists committed to enacting new laws that would restrict civilian access to certain weapons. But if they believed the shootings would simultaneously soften the views of gun enthusiasts who have consistently opposed new gun-control measures, they appear to be mistaken.

Gary Liljengren, a Newtown resident and member of the Fairfield County Fish & Game Club, said he was deeply shaken by the Sandy Hook shootings. But the longtime hunter said the tragedy did not diminish his belief in the right of law-abiding citizens to own the weapons of their choice.

"I can't tell you how many times I've cried. I'm crying right now talking about it," he said of the shootings. "But I'm still pro-guns."

Where gun control activists see a push to honor the memory of those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary, gun rights advocates see exploitation of a tragedy and an unprecedented assault on their rights.

Is anyone surprised that gun enthusiasts have no plans to give in without a fight?

"People need to realize that we do feel under attack. And we plan to defend ourselves," said Rich Burgess, president of Connecticut Carry.

Burgess said he shares the nation's grief over the deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary. But he said gun control efforts are emotional reactions that haven't worked in the past. He said he favors improvements in mental health care, armed guards in schools, and increased ownership of guns by trained, law-abiding citizens.

"We tried it their way. We tried an assault weapons ban. We tried a mag ban," Burgess said, citing the 1994 federal ban that expired a decade later. "All it did then was make law-abiding people criminals. And I think that once again, law-abiding citizens are made criminals and it's not going to be effective at doing anything."

It is a consistent refrain among pro-gun advocates. Guns are inanimate objects, they say, made dangerous only in the hands of a criminal. And criminals, they say, won't obey the new restrictions.

"So basically you're saying only the cops and the criminals can have guns," said Chris Bartocci, an expert on military rifles and a former Colt firearms employee. "If you're in between, you're at either one's mercy. And that's not what this country is about."

Many, but not all, gun advocates make a similar argument with respect to high-capacity magazines, saying a ban will weaken the capabilities of law-abiding shooters without affecting criminals who won't obey the new law.

"If I've got two drugged-up felons coming in my front door with M4s, I don't want to sit there and say, 'wait a minute, I have to change a magazine,' " said John Beidler, treasurer of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League. "I find it absolutely horrible that certain people think they are so knowledgeable that they can determine what I need for my personal safety."

A vocal contingent of gun enthusiasts are Second Amendment fundamentalists, saying the right to bear arms is critical to guard against a despotic government, a view that has gained popularity since the election of President Barack Obama.