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)

In the days after the Sandy Hook shootings, members of a stunned community and a grieving nation called for a renewed discussion on gun violence, with the goal of fostering a respectful dialogue aimed at finding common ground to protect little children.

But on this exceptionally contentious battleground, finding even a common language is difficult.

Guns are a fault line in the American experience, cleaving the nation into camps with fundamentally different world views. One sees firearms – particularly aggressively designed rifles that look like military weapons – as killing machines that should not permitted, much less revered, in a civilized society. The other sees guns as the ultimate symbol of the frontier ideals of defiance, individualism and freedom.

Both sides believe they reside in the rational middle and are waiting for their opponents to adopt reason and join them in the center.

"I think that people who think that we're on the fringe, are the people that are on the fringe," said Burgess, the president of Connecticut Carry.

Gun rights activists instantly tune out gun control supporters who proclaim allegiance to the Second Amendment – while simultaneously expressing support for banning guns or ammunition that "no one needs."

"People talk about, 'well, at least we're letting you have this,' " said Bartocci, the expert on military rifles. "It's not for you to tell me what I can and can't do. I'm not your subject. I am a citizen of this country."

Gun control advocates, meanwhile, roll their eyes at hypothetical tales of multiple burglars with heavy-duty firepower that can only be matched with powerful firearms and high-capacity magazines.

"Do these people walk around their house all day long with an assault weapon hanging off their belt?" asked Mary Ann Jacob, a library clerk at Sandy Hook Elementary who helped hide more than a dozen children during the attack. "I couldn't imagine spending my whole life being so fearful. I would feel badly for them if that's how they live their life."

Jacob said those on all sides of the debate "need to be reasonable and be willing to compromise." But on the more contentious issues in the gun debate, that's not likely to happen.

"What I think is reasonable, we're already doing," said Giannettino, who offered firearms training to teachers. "I think we've already reached the middle ground. I don't think there is anything left to compromise on."

Robert Chambers, registered agent for the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, attended a legislative hearing on gun control with four other officers of the group. Asked if any saw a path to compromise, all five quickly said no.

"I mean, what compromise would there be? The gun owners in this state have been compromising from the get go," Chambers said. "And I say compromising – they've been giving and other people have been taking. We've got nothing back. A compromise is a give and take. If all they do is take, where's the compromise?"

That does not mean there will be no change. Advocates on both sides say new laws are possible requiring background checks for gun-show and other private sales, rather than only for those purchases made at licensed firearms dealers.

"Most gun owners, I think, support background checks. The line in the sand gets drawn when you talk about banning weapons, confiscating weapons and doing what they're doing right now," said Bartocci.

So any changes beyond that line in the sand are likely to come as the result of a possible shift in the balance of power, not because of a meeting of the minds.

Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, sees hints of that shift. "There's a lot of legislators right now that have traditionally been firearms-friendly and helpful to the cause of the Second Amendment, or at least not a hindrance, and now they're looking over their shoulder," Wilson said.

Others aren't so sure. Former congressman Toby Moffett, a veteran of gun control battles who is serving as a volunteer advocate for new gun laws at the federal level, says he saw a softening in the resolve of lawmakers just weeks after the shootings.

"Congressmen and Senators, who vowed to support tough measures, return from their first trip home post-Newtown to say they are now 'studying' the issue," Moffett wrote in the Huffington Post.

Paul Barrett, a columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine and an expert on the gun industry, says that shift away from reform may say more about representative democracy than it does about the maneuverings of the gun lobby.

"If you're a Republican and you want to get re-elected, it's not because the NRA has tricked you into following their agenda," Barrett said. "It's because the NRA is more-or-less popular with your constituents."

Back in Newtown, where two months have passed since the shootings made the community a town like no other, some residents last week were making signs for the Valentine's Day "March for Change" in Hartford that served as a rally for "common-sense gun laws."

Across the philosophical divide, other residents were celebrating the reopening of local gun ranges, and once again enjoying the feel of a rifle stock against their shoulders and the thrill of squinting through a scope at a far-away bull's-eye. If the call goes out again to campaign against new gun laws, many gun enthusiasts say they're ready to attend common-sense rallies of their own.

"I think that the town is united in its grief and its horror – but remains as divided as it ever was about the appropriate, rational response to reducing the risk of that horror ever being repeated," said Hutchinson, the book editor and Newtown resident.

"And in that respect," he said, "Newtown is no different than the rest of the country."

Sarah Childress, Mary Robertson and John Marks of "Frontline" contributed to this story.