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)

"Legislators in Hartford are in the process of destroying your Second Amendment rights by exploiting recent tragedies," read the alert, under the banner "Immediate Action Needed."

And while Sanetti avoids that sort of fiery language, he is passionate in defending sales of his industry's products.

The Sandy Hook shootings, he said, were primarily a consequence of Nancy Lanza's failure to keep her weapons out of the hands of her troubled son. He said the fault ends there, and no blame should be placed on the weapon Adam Lanza used.

"Millions and millions of law-abiding Americans use semiautomatic firearms with detachable magazines of varying capacities, and millions and millions of them every day don't do a thing wrong," he said. "You can't say that these guns bring out the worst in people. They're guns. They're neutral objects."

Sanetti, fit and energetic, began shooting at age 12 with a BB gun and graduated to duck hunting and target shooting with his father, which formed a lifelong bond. He was president of the rifle and pistol club at Virginia Military Institute, and hunted squirrel and other small game to keep his food costs down during law school.

He said the debate over guns after Newtown reflects the long-standing split on the issue across the country. He said he understands why urban dwellers, who equate gun use with crime or police activity, are mistrustful of firearms.

"There is a great divide in the United States," he said. "If you think of the word 'gun,' and you think 'bad,' or you think of the word 'gun,' and you think 'pretty good' – there's a divide. There's a natural divide there."

But he said gun control advocates hurt their cause by disparaging all guns and gun users, including those who use military-style rifles.

"You take these people who use these guns for legitimate purposes, and you tell them: 'You're nothing but a murderer, because that's the only reason why anybody would own one of these guns: to kill people.' How are you going to get these people to cooperate?" Sanetti said. "They really really, to-the-core, alienate people who, if we are to have a national consensus on this issue, need to be involved."

Still, Sanetti knew the industry would be in the cross hairs after the Sandy Hook shootings. He learned of the attack while sitting in an airport, waiting for a flight to Europe. When a newscaster reported that children had been shot dead in Newtown, he canceled his flight and raced back to the office. He said the industry is not opposed to improving background checks, but will fight any proposal to restrict sales.

"We feel that we've done nothing wrong; that we are a responsible industry making responsible products for law-abiding citizens," Sanetti said. "But people react emotionally. And I think people make bad decisions when they are angry, when they are fearful and when they act in haste."

"And I think that this situation had the making of all three."

The Divide

Neil Heslin, halting and emotionally broken, leaned into a microphone at the Legislative Office Building last month to tell a hushed public hearing about his son Jesse - his buddy, his best friend - who told him, "I love you, Dad," at exactly 9:04 a.m. on Dec. 14, and was gunned down in his classroom 30 minutes later.

"I ask if there's anybody in this room that can give me one reason," Heslin said in a slow, quiet voice, "or challenge this question: Why anybody in this room needs to have one of these assault-style weapons or military weapons or high-capacity clips."

At first, there was silence. Heslin looked over his shoulder at the crowd, made up mostly of gun supporters.

"Not one person can answer that question."

At with that, several gun enthusiasts couldn't help themselves.

"The Second Amendment!" several called out. "Shall not be infringed." "Shall not infringe our rights," others added, before the hearing chairman threatened to clear the room.

"We're all entitled to our own opinion," Heslin said in a small voice once the room was quiet. "And I respect their opinions and their thoughts. But I wish they'd respect mine and give it a little bit of thought and realize that it could have been their child that was in that school that day."