December 16, 2012
By MICHAEL MOSS and RAY RIVERA
People in the rural, hilly areas around Newtown, Conn., are used to gunfire. In one woodsy stretch, southeast of downtown, the Pequot Fish and Game Club and the Fairfield County Fish and Game Protective Association, where members can fish in ponds and hunt pheasant, lie within a mile of each other, and people who live nearby generally call them good neighbors.
But in the last couple of years, residents began noticing loud, repeated gunfire, and even explosions, coming from new places. Near a trailer park. By a boat launch. Next to well-appointed houses. At 2:20 p.m. on one Wednesday last spring, multiple shots were reported in a wooded area on Cold Spring Road near South Main Street, right across the road from an elementary school.
Yet recent efforts by the police chief and other town leaders to gain some control over the shooting and the weaponry turned into a tumultuous civic fight, with traditional hunters and discreet gun owners opposed by assault weapon enthusiasts, and a modest tolerance for bearing arms competing with the staunch views of a gun industry trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which has made Newtown its home.
The place that witnessed one of the worst mass killings in United States history on Friday, leaving 20 schoolchildren and 8 adults dead, is a bucolic New England town comfortable with its firearms, and not an obvious arena for the nation’s debate over gun control. But the legislative battle right here shows how even the slightest attempts to impose restrictions on guns can run into withering resistance, made all the more pointed by the escalation in firepower.
“Something needs to be done,” said Joel T. Faxon, a hunter and a member of the town’s police commission, who championed the shooting restrictions. “These are not normal guns, that people need. These are guns for an arsenal, and you get lunatics like this guy who goes into a school fully armed and protected to take return fire. We live in a town, not in a war.”
The gunman’s mother, Nancy Lanza, had collected several weapons, including powerful handguns and a semiautomatic rifle that she and her son, Adam, were fond of shooting, and it remains unclear where they took their target practice. Much of the gunfire and the explosions reported by residents to the police in recent months came from a spot less than three miles from their house. Police logs identified the spot as one of the town’s many unlicensed gun ranges, where the familiar noise of hunting rifles has grown to include automatic gunfire and explosions that have shaken houses.
“It was like this continuous, rapid fire,” said Amy Habboush, who was accustomed to the sound of gunfire but became alarmed last year when she heard what sounded like machine guns, though she did not complain to the police. “It was a concern. We knew there was target practice, but we hadn’t heard that noise before.”
Earlier this year, the Newtown police chief, Michael Kehoe, went to the Town Council for help. The town had a 20-year-old ordinance aimed at hunters that included a ban on shooting within 500 feet of occupied dwellings, but the chief complained that the way the law was written had left him powerless to enforce the rules or otherwise crack down on the riskiest shooting.
The police department logged more than 50 gunfire complaints this year through July, double the number for all of 2011, records show. Some of the complaints raised another issue. Gun enthusiasts here, as elsewhere in the country, have taken to loading their targets with an explosive called Tannerite, which detonates when bullets strike it, sending shock waves afield. A mixture of ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder, Tannerite is legal in Connecticut, but safety concerns led Maryland this year to ban it.
Mr. Faxon, the police commission member, who is a lawyer, said he wrote the new ordinance, which would have imposed additional constraints on shooting, including limited hours, and a requirement that any target shooting range, and the firearms that would be used there, be approved by the chief of police to make sure they were safe. This was no liberal putsch, Mr. Faxon said; three of the five commission members are Republicans, and two members are police officers.
“I’ve hunted for many years, but the police department was getting complaints of shooting in the morning, in the evening, and of people shooting at propane gas tanks just to see them explode,” Mr. Faxon said.
The proposal was submitted to the council’s ordinance committee, whose chairwoman, Mary Ann Jacob, would play a heroic role on Friday. Ms. Jacob is a librarian aide at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where she is credited with protecting many lives by throwing two rooms crowded with children into lockdown as the gunfire erupted.
“We’re growing,” Ms. Jacob said in an interview on Saturday, describing a town where hikers and mountain bikers now compete with gun owners for use of the many trails and wooded areas. “The police chief is not looking to change behavior or go after a group of people, but rather he’s trying to give his officers the ability, if an incident occurs, to react appropriately. Right now, if you’re standing on your property and my house is 20 feet away, you can shoot.”
The first meeting took place on Aug. 2, with about 60 people crowding into the room. Some spoke in favor of the new rules, the meeting minutes show. But many voiced their opposition, citing the waiting lists at established gun ranges. Among the speakers was a representative of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, who was described as saying he believed there was a greater danger of swimming accidents. “No privileges should be taken away from another generation,” he said.
The president and spokesman of the group did not respond to messages left Sunday. Citing the continuing investigation, the group said on its Web site it would not be commenting on the massacre, but that “our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this horrible tragedy in our community.”
A second committee gathering in September drew such a large crowd that the meeting was moved into a high school cafeteria, where the opposition grew fierce. “This is a freedom that should never be taken away,” one woman said. Added another, “Teach kids to hunt, you will never have to hunt your kids.”
“No safety concerns exist,” the National Shooting Sports Foundation spokesman said, according to the minutes.
The proposed ordinance was shelved, and Ms. Jacob said the committee was in the midst of researching a more limited rule, perhaps one restricted to making the existing ban on firing weapons within 500 feet of an occupied building more enforceable.
“Five hundred feet!” Mr. Flaxon said in an interview. “A BB gun can go that far.”
Newtown residents said many of the ranges in the area have long waiting lists of people eager to join, which has led to the profusion of informal ranges.
On High Rock Road, where many gunfire complaints originated, what appeared to be three or more gun ranges were set back from the road.
The owner of one, Scott Ostrosky, said he and his friends had been shooting automatic weapons since he bought the 23-acre property more than 12 years ago. It is safe, he said, because his land is sandwiched between two other gun ranges, the 123-acre Pequot hunting club and the 500-acre Fairfield club.
The explosions his neighbors hear are targets that are legally available at hunting outlets. “If you’re good old boys like we are, they are exciting,” he said. He said he was distraught at the school massacre but said guns should not be made the “scapegoat.”
“Guns are why we’re free in this country, and people lose sight of that when tragedies like this happen,” he said. “A gun didn’t kill all those children, a disturbed man killed all those children.”