One of the odd coincidences of the Newtown tragedy is that the headquarters of one of the biggest anti-gun-control groups in the nation stands less than two miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School — almost close enough to hear the gunfire.
It's called the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a nonprofit trade organization created by and for the American firearms industry. With annual revenue of more than $25 million, the NSSF is second only to the National Rifle Association in the amount spent on lobbying against federal gun-control laws.
Yet few people in Connecticut had ever heard of the NSSF, at least until those 20 kids and six adults were gunned down not far from the foundation's HQ.
And while its efforts to stymie federal gun legislation are familiar to congressional insiders, the organization has played a more shadowy role in firearm debates at Connecticut's state Capitol.
"They've always been a force behind the scenes," says former Connecticut lawmaker Michael Lawlor. "You knew they were involved, but you could almost never see what they were doing."
Lawlor, a longtime gun-control advocate, is now Gov. Dannel Malloy's top criminal-justice adviser.
"They definitely are players," agrees Ron Pinciaro, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence. He says NSSF officials haven't been "as out front" during state gun-control battles as lobbyists for the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen or the NRA. "But they're not back-benchers."
One indication of just how far under the radar the foundation has stayed at the state level is that Bob Godfrey, a deputy speaker of the Connecticut House, has no idea who they are. "I've never even heard of them," says Godfrey, a veteran pro-gun-control lawmaker from Danbury — a community that borders Newtown.
That low-profile approach at the state level is in keeping with the NSSF's no-comment position following the Sandy Hook massacre.
After the shootings, the group posted a message on its website that reads, in part:
"We at the National Shooting Sports Foundation have been deeply shaken and saddened by the horrible events that took place in Newtown... Our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this terrible tragedy."
"Out of respect for the families, the community and the ongoing police investigation, it would be inappropriate for our organization to comment or participate in media requests at this time."
The foundation's apparent preference for staying below the radar of the general public doesn't mean it's always kept quiet on gun issues. Spokesmen for the NSSF have spoken publically against proposals to ban assault weapons, high-capacity gun magazines, and even local attempts in Newtown earlier in 2012 to place new controls over informal shooting ranges.
Jake McGuigan, the NSSF's director of government relations, appeared at a March 2011 legislative hearing in Hartford to speak against a state plan to ban firearm magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds at one time. (Adam Lanza, the gunman in the Sandy Hook slaughter, had exactly that type of large-capacity magazine on his semi-automatic assault weapon-style rifle.)
That 2011 proposal was triggered by another gun horror: the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that took the lives of six people and wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. In his testimony, McGuigan lamented that the "tragic incident... has unfortunately prompted a legislative 'knee-jerk reaction' on both the state and federal levels..."
McGuigan warned Connecticut legislators that passing the ban on high-capacity magazines for semi-automatic weapons could hurt Connecticut's gun manufacturers. He carefully pointed out that "the firearms industry has contributed close to $1.3 billion in economic activity to Connecticut in 2010," and wondered if the new legislation might drive iconic businesses like Colt out of the state.
Bob Crook is executive director and lobbyist for the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, an anti-gun-control group. He says McGuigan "shows up at the state Capitol once in a while" to provide testimony on things like the gun magazine bill.
But, says Crook, "he's not a high-profile lobbyist." McGuigan apparently prefers to let his Connecticut gun-making members do the talking to state lawmakers.
Lobbying reports bear witness to the NSSF's preference for staying behind the scenes. In 2011 and 2012, the group reported paying McGuigan less than $5,000 for state lobbying work. Those same years, Crook got more than $21,000 for his lobbying efforts.
According to the federal tax form the NSSF filed in 2011, the organization's purpose is to "promote the shooting sports and foster a better understanding of recreational shooting. NSSF works for the general welfare of hunting, target shooting, firearms safety..."