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)

But even those who don't reach that conclusion are often skeptical of the motives of anti-gun politicians, and their passion is fueled in part by a persistent belief that some legislators ultimately want to eliminate access to all guns. They say acquiescing on a ban on assault weapons would lead to future laws aimed at all semiautomatic rifles, and then all shotguns, and eventually, all handguns.

"The next thing you know, we'll be defending ourselves with rocks," Beidler said.

Some politicians make no effort to hide their dislike of guns, saying that in a nation with 300 million firearms – and an outsized number of gun homicides compared to other countries – there would be less gun violence if there were simply fewer guns.

But even that suggestion is typically rejected by pro-gun advocates, who say those intent on misusing guns will find a way to be armed, no matter how many guns are in circulation.

"Let's suppose for a moment that we could magically make half the firearms in America disappear over night," said Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the NRA. "I think people that don't understand this issue well would reasonably and logically conclude that somehow that would have to have a positive impact on criminals obtaining and misusing guns.

"I think that's perfectly rational, logical – and exactly wrong."

The Industry

In the spring of 1989, just months after a drifter shot up an elementary school playground in California and killed five children, legendary gunmaker Bill Ruger Sr. made a bold proposal to Congress that to this day makes him a traitor to some pro-gun advocates.

Fearful that Washington was prepared to outlaw certain rifles it deemed to be assault weapons, Ruger offered an alternative to quell public outcry over gun violence: "a simple, complete and unequivocal ban on large capacity magazines."

Congress took him up on the offer. And then went ahead and passed an assault weapons ban, too.

Among the Sturm, Ruger executives who developed Bill Ruger's proposal nearly a quarter century ago was Steve Sanetti, who today runs the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade group for the entire firearms industry.

Sanetti, whose offices are in Newtown, less than two miles from Sandy Hook Elementary, again finds himself up against carnage at an elementary school and public pressure for politicians to address gun violence, including calls for a ban on high-capacity magazines.

But he says this time, he won't be following his mentor's footsteps.

"Unfortunately, I think it shows the bad faith of the people we were dealing with," Sanetti said recently in his first lengthy interview since the shooting in Newtown. "You give people who are truly anti-gun an inch, and they'll take a mile."

Before Dec. 14, the National Shooting Sports Foundation stayed mostly in the shadows. The sign outside its Newtown headquarters includes only its initials, and many locals had no idea their town was home to a trade group representing every major gun manufacturer and 8,000 smaller firearms-related businesses.

For most in Newtown and beyond, the National Rifle Association is the public face of gun interests – and the group willing to engage in bruising, high-stakes political battles.

The NSSF, with corporate interests at stake, took a more button-down approach. The group sponsors an annual "Congressional Fly-In" that brings executives from the industry to Capitol Hill, and it occasionally sends representatives to testify on proposed legislation in Connecticut, delivering an unabashedly economic message: gun control laws might cost Connecticut jobs.

There are no strident slogans on the organization's website, no references to "cold, dead hands," no overt attacks on Obama. And most of the site is focused on hunting and target shooting, with minimal references to the use of guns for self-protection – other than tips on safely storing weapons in the home. Through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, the group has distributed 35 million gun locks over the past dozen years.

It is a well-cultivated image of a responsible, centuries-old industry. But that does not mean the NSSF has no fight in it.

In response to a spate of new gun control bills in the Connecticut legislature, the NSSF's government-relations unit released an uncharacteristically harsh "Action Alert" to its email subscribers several weeks ago.