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.”
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.”
More than 20 years ago, Frank Higgins delved into the debate over guns by trying to thread the middle.
After a former University of Iowa graduate student shot and killed four faculty members and a rival student in 1991 before killing himself, a local theater company hired Higgins to write a play about guns. He devised a series of vignettes populated by characters with clashing views.
When “Gunplay” opened in 1993, a few gun rights activists protested outside. The director invited them in to talk; they approved of some scenes and disapproved of others, he says. The company spent a year staging the play around Iowa, mostly in small towns, where audiences were largely receptive.
After that, though, Higgins’ play drew little interest. He recalls that a Florida director wanted to produce it and take it to local schools. A year earlier, she’d done the same thing with a play about AIDS. But school board members deemed the gun play too incendiary.
After Newtown, though, the Kansas City, Mo., resident got a call from a friend in Boston who wanted to stage a reading. The play’s renewed relevance led to a call from The Kansas City Star, which ran a story in its arts section in late April.
By 9 a.m. that Saturday, Higgins’ home phone started ringing. Over the next couple of hours, he answered a dozen calls, all about the play.
“About half the people who read this article ripped me to pieces because the play should be fervently anti-gun … and the others were exactly the opposite,” Higgins says.
Some were just “30 seconds of rant and hanging up,” Higgins says. Others were longer, including one from a woman who told him her husband had been shot to death a few years earlier during a mugging.
Higgins’ number is listed. But none of his plays — including “Gunplay” — had ever prompted strangers to look him up. Something has changed.
“It seems as if part of what Newtown did is that there’s a greater sense of ‘we’re not going to back down, we’re going to speak out more.’ So what does that do? It just amps it up more.”
At the end of Higgins’ play, as many 10 actors take the stage, all talking over each other, until the debate is cut by a single gunshot. It was supposed to be a dramatization. Now, though, Higgins has to wonder.
Paul Libera went to college on the money his state-trooper dad earned in the gun-and-fishing-tackle store he ran on the side. Libera was “raised with guns under my bed and in my closet and with bird shot coming out of the food we were eating,” he says. He grew up duck hunting on Lake Ontario.
When Libera moved away from upstate New York, he also left behind his father’s love for guns. But the lake eventually drew Libera back. Each summer he gathered area kids for a water skiing camp at a friend’s yard on the waterfront in Webster.
That peace was broken early last Dec. 24, when an ex-con, William Spengler, set his own house on fire and sprayed gunfire at responding firefighters, killing Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka. The blaze destroyed seven homes, including the one where Libera’s campers met.
Webster grieved. But to Libera, that wasn’t enough.
In January, he spent $600 for an 8-foot-wide sign, lettered in red, and planted it in the frozen ground next door to the site of the ambush.
“How many deaths will it take ’til we know too many people have died?” the sign asked.
Soon after, he heard that the message had sparked a week of class discussion at the local high school.
“It made me feel really grateful that there was intellectual dialogue going on,” he says.
But when a photo of the sign was posted to a Facebook page honoring the firefighters, it drew more than 70 comments, many critical. There were those who said the sign was “repulsive,” that it politicized the firefighters’ deaths. Officials told him the sign had to be removed because he lacked a permit; he took it down in the spring.
Meanwhile, signs sprouted in some yards demanding repeal of the new state gun control law pushed through by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And in October, American Tactical Imports, a firearms importer and manufacturer based in nearby Chili, announced it was moving to South Carolina, a “state that is friendly to the Second Amendment rights of the people.”
The pro-gun response discouraged Libera, who worried fighting to keep his sign up would distract from its message and the memory of the firefighters. And he was troubled when parents of some of the children he instructs, not knowing he was responsible for the sign, remarked that its message was so horrible they avoided driving by.
“I think they just want to shut it out and pretend it didn’t happen and hope it goes away,” he says.
Newtown’s conversation about guns began six months before the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary.
It started around the time Andrea Ondak, a translator who shares a home in town with husband, Jim, wrote local officials about prolonged gunfire by target shooters at a farm next door. She was not alone — from mid-2010 until August 2012, Newtown police fielded 85 complaints about gunfire.
The Police Commission crafted an ordinance restricting hours and locations of target shooting. But at a hearing in August 2012, about 60 gun owners criticized the proposal as a breach of Second Amendment rights. Jim Ondak was the only one who rose to support it.
“As a result of the pressure … the Legislative Council just really allowed the thing to die on the on the vine,” says Joel Faxon, a Police Commission member, lawyer and gun owner who drew up the measure. “The lead from a high-velocity round from a rifle can travel miles. I’m not talking a slingshot. So it had to be addressed.”
Adam Lanza’s rampage — and the grief it unleashed — changed everything. Now there was incentive “to say you need to stand up and do the right thing about this,” says Eric Poupon, who 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 reign 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.”