Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Towns Grapple with Gun Control Debate

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Towns Grapple with Gun Control Debate

Article excerpt

NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Even here, as the processional of funerals builds, the national debate over gun control is playing out in a visceral way.

Newtown, a suburb prized as much for its quaint New England charm as for its woodsy areas, was home to a vibrant gun control debate over unlicensed shooting ranges months before Friday's massacre claimed 26 lives at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Now, Newtown finds itself at the center of a larger, more divisive issue that has no easy answers.

And here, as in many places around the nation, the debate centers on whether further regulation would stop mass shootings.

"The problem really isn't the guns," Ernie Hefferon of neighboring Brookfield said Tuesday outside a shop that repairs cameras and guns. "I think assault weapons get a bad reputation. ... The kids are desensitized. We've gotten away from the dinner table and raising them the right way."

Sean Eldridge, a gunsmith in nearby Bethel, has heard the argument before, but said he no longer agrees.

"Nobody wants them, unfortunately," Eldridge said of proposals for tighter gun laws and restrictions on assault-style weapons.

"Even I agree some changes need to be made somewhere along the line. I see too many 18-year-old kids walking in with these rifles - - they want something out of the video games."

The internal conflict seen in communities in and around Newtown is set against the backdrop of a local legislative battle earlier this year over a proposal to tighten firearms restrictions.

Alarmed by the sound of high-caliber gunfire and exploding targets near homes and schools, the police chief, Michael Kehoe, proposed limiting the hours that people can fire guns and mandating that firing ranges, and the firearms that are used, be approved by the Police Department. But the matter ultimately was tabled amid public outcry and pressure from the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

While there are those who say gun restrictions aren't the answer to the string of mass shootings the country has endured in recent years, others say they support at least getting military-style weapons out of the hands of civilians.

John Birtche, the owner of a metal working shop in Newtown, said he supports his neighbors' rights to own weapons. For 25 years he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, and he's in the market for an antique .50 caliber machine gun -- one he's quick to note isn't operational anymore.

"The right to bear arms -- hell yeah," Birtche said Tuesday. "But there shouldn't be access to assault rifles."

"There's nothing wrong with tighter gun laws," added another man at Birtche's shop, who declined to give his name. And given the brutality of last week's shootings, he said, residents here might be ready to make some concessions.

Eldridge said legislators should put in place more stringent background checks for gun buyers. …

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