A year after Newtown, rift over guns deepens

Tensions stronger as divide in public debate grows larger

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In the moment, Newtown’s children became our own.

Staring at photographs of their freckled faces, hair tucked into barrettes and baseball caps, a country divided by politics, geography, race, class and belief was united in mourning. And as their deaths confronted Americans with vexing questions about guns and violence, there were calls to turn that shared grief into a collective search for answers.

“These tragedies must end,” President Barack Obama said, two nights after the mass shooting left 20 first-graders and six educators dead. “And to end them, we must change.”

Now, a year has passed. But the unity born of tragedy has given way to ambivalence and deepened division.

Today, half of Americans say the country needs stricter gun laws — down since spiking last December but higher than two years ago. And the ranks of those who want easier access to guns — though far fewer than those who support expanding gun control — are now at their highest level since Gallup began asking the question in 1990.

Even when the public found some common ground, widely supporting expanded background checks for gun purchases, lawmakers could not agree.

In our towns, in our neighborhoods, the discord is striking.

In Webster, N.Y. — where two firefighters were shot and killed last Christmas Eve — an advocate of gun control is discouraged by the hostile response to his effort to get people to rethink old attitudes.

In Nelson, Ga., each of two men who took opposite sides in the debate over a local law requiring everyone to own a gun says the other side won’t listen to reason.

In Newtown, itself, a gun owner says the rush to bring the town together has left people like him marginalized.

People are digging in.

“I wish people could come to a table and say we all want the same thing. We want our kids to be safe. Now how are we going to do that?” says Carla Barzetti of Newtown, who backs her husband’s support of firearms ownership, yet feels personally uncomfortable around guns. “I don’t think the grown-ups are setting a very good example.”

Disagreement in Georgia

With 1,300 people in Nelson and so little crime that officials have debated whether it needs a full-time police officer, the north Georgia town was an unlikely flashpoint for the gun debate.

Then Bill McNiff, a retired accountant and local tea party activist, suggested to Councilman Duane Cronic that the town should have a law requiring everyone to own a gun.

By the time council members unanimously approved, news cameras jockeyed for position in the chambers.

The spotlight didn’t last. After the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence sued the town in support of Lamar Kellett, the law’s most vocal critic, the council agreed in late August to revise the measure to make clear that gun ownership is a choice and that a requirement could not be enforced.

But the disagreements that breached the small-town quiet haven’t gone away. Instead, they’ve added to tensions on a wooded bend in Laurel Lake Drive, where McNiff and Kellett live two doors apart. Coming and going, they’re apt to pass Cronic, the councilman, who lives in the house between them.

Edith Portillo, a councilwoman who also backed the ordinance, lives across the street.

“He’s my neighbor and he knows my feelings,” McNiff says of Kellett. “We go to City Council meetings regularly, and I see him there. I chat with him and we see our neighbors, there’s conversation … or as I’m prone to say, he’s an idiot, so I just put up with him.”

Asked about his neighbor, Kellett declines to use McNiff’s name or give credence to his argument.

Most people in this old marble quarrying center — itself named for a long-ago farmer and rifle maker — believe in a right to own guns, McNiff and Kellett agree. But Nelson’s gradual redevelopment as an outlying bedroom community for metro Atlanta has drawn families with different attitudes, they say.

Each sees the outcome of Nelson’s debate as a mix of victory and disappointment.

McNiff says the ordinance declares values ignored by gun control advocates in big cities.

“They don’t go through and say I need a rifle, I need a gun because I have 55 acres and occasionally a coyote walks through,” he says.

Critics “looked at (Nelson’s law) from their ideological point of view, which is that they’re anti-gun. They didn’t look at it from the point of view that we wanted to prevent the government” from taking away people’s guns.

Kellett, meanwhile, says the outcome did little to reshape a debate that leaves many people cowed into keeping quiet.

As in many other civic discussions, “a small percentage of the people make a lot of the noise,” he says.

“I talked to people who had not owned a gun in 50 years and didn’t intend to get one and I talked to people who had always had a gun forever. … That’s why I didn’t want the city of Nelson to be blown out of proportion, like we’re some sort of an armed camp.”

Parents for a Safer Newtown

Following Adam Lanza’s rampage, Eric Poupon formed Parents for a Safer Newtown to push for limits on target shooting.

That led to a tense new round of hearings, with people on both sides reminded to let opponents speak without interruption and to direct comments to the council rather than each other.

Gun owners described target shooting as a prized tradition in their rural community. Opponents noted that Newtown is no longer so rural; the population has grown 45 percent since 1980.

Finally, council members approved a law in September limiting target shooting to four hours and requiring gun owners to call police beforehand. But they dropped a requirement that such shooting take place at least 2,000 feet from another home, letting stand the current 500-foot limit.

Poupon said he hears fewer shots and thinks maybe people have decided on their own to rein in shooting. But people on both sides are troubled by what the debate revealed.

The intensity of gun owners’ opposition and the pressure they put on local officials “was a real wakeup call,” Andrea Ondak says.

Meanwhile, Dave Barzetti, a welder and target shooter who lives less than a mile from the Ondaks, says the debate reflects troubling changes. He says since Sandy Hook, officials are determined to build more facilities and offer more programs. It’s a big-government approach to bringing Newtown together, he says, and he feels the target shooting ordinance is part of it.

“I think there was a sense of urgency to bring the town together, to coalesce,” says Barzetti, a father of two. “They’re pushing an agenda that’s dividing the town and certain people are leaving and I’m going to be one of them.”

His wife, Carla, says the family built their dream home on 18 acres here. But a large tax hike, compounded by the divide over guns, convinced them they no longer belong. In September, they bought 150 acres in Tennessee.

Recalling Newtown as it was, before last Dec. 14, she starts to cry.

“It still had people who were nice to each other, working together and no one was talking about guns,” she says. “Then (the attack) happened and it became either you have guns or you don’t have guns.”